Who’s to Blame?

June 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

This is from a PSA entered into between Joe Bryant and his then-wife, Adella Jones:

[Adella] will receive as property settlement[] fifty percent (50%) of [Joe’s] disposable retirement from the Unites States Marine Corps/Army National Guard and fifty percent [50%] of [Joe’s] disposable retirement from the Veterans Administration which will be paid directly to [Adella] by the United States Marine Corps/Army National Guard and the Veterans Administration.

Joe retired from the VA on November 1, 2008, and from the military on June 30, 2010, and began receiving 100% of his retirement from both. He never paid any of the amounts received to Adella.

In October, 2010, Adella submitted her application for her retirement benefits, unaware whether Joe had retired, and she began receiving her one-half in January, 2011.

After Joe had filed a futile modification action, and she learned that he had begun receiving 100% of his retirement benefits for a time before she received any, Adella filed a contempt action against Joe.

Following a trial, the chancellor ruled that it was the military, and not Joe, that was required to make the payments, and, therefore, that he was not in contempt. The judge did award Adella a judgment against Joe for one-half of the retirement he had received in the interim in the amount of $46,433. Adella appealed.

On April 7, 2015, the COA affirmed in Jones v. Bryant. Judge Carlton’s for a unanimous court explained:

¶15. In the July 2, 2013 order granting Adella’s motion to dismiss [Joe’s pleading for modification], the chancellor found that “after reviewing the property settlement agreement, . . . the provisions regarding military retirement are clear and unambiguous and should not be modified.” The chancellor later entered a final judgment on August 8, 2013, further holding that “the property settlement agreement requires Adella’s portion of the retirement to be paid by the United States Marine Corps/Army National Guard and the Veterans Administration rather than by Joe,” and as a result, “Joe is not in willful and contumacious contempt of the agreement.” We find Adella presented no evidence to support her claims that Joe willfully or intentionally violated any court order. The record reflects that the plain language of the property-settlement agreement in this case provides that Adella’s portion of Joe’s military retirement pay would be paid directly to her by the Marine Corps/Army National Guard and Veterans Administration.

¶16. The Uniformed Services Former Spouses’ Protection Act (USFSPA) provides former spouses, who are awarded a portion of military retirement pay in a divorce, with “a mechanism to enforce retired pay as property award by direct payments from the member’s retired pay.” See Defense Finance and Accounting Service, Frequently Asked Questions, http://www.dfas.mil/garnishment/usfspa/faqs.html; 10 U.S.C. § 1408 (2012). [Footnote omitted] The former spouse must complete and provide the required applications, relevant court order, and supporting documentation, as required by statute and regulations, to the designated Defense Finance and Accounting Service, and the language in the property award must also comply. [Footnote omitted]

¶17. After our review of the record, we find substantial evidence exists in the record to support the chancellor’s final judgment determining Joe was not in willful and contumacious contempt of the property-settlement agreement or any other court order. Accordingly, we also find no error in the chancellor’s denial of attorney’s fees to Adella. See Henderson v. Henderson, 952 So. 2d 273, 280 (¶23) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006).

How can you avoid a similar result for your client?

  • Any duty that you want to be enforceable later in favor of your client needs to spelled out. Here, it would have been simple to spell out that Joe had the duty to notify Adella in writing within a specified time of his retirement. For example, he could have been required to send her a copy of his application for benefits simultaneously with its submission to the agency.
  • Whenever a contract requires third-party payments on behalf of A, specify that A will be responsible to make the agreed payments himself to B until the third party begins making them. For instance, “Joe will pay one-half of any retirement benefits received by him directly to Adella until such time as the [agency] begins withholding her 50% portion” or words to that effect.
  • You might want to read that Department of Defense material and incorporate some of it verbatim in your PSA. Agencies understand their own jargon better than yours or the court’s.
  • Is it in your client’s interest to spell out whether the retirement is being paid as property division on the one hand, or as alimony on the other? It might be; you need to consider it.
  • Know and understand how the retirement system works. Read the interpretive material. Study the website. Draft your PSA from a position of knowledge, not guesswork.

 

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