California Wife Entitled to Compensation After Husband’s Waiver of Military Pension Cuts off Payments

In family law cases, as with many areas of life, one can sometimes lose an individual battle but still achieve a larger outcome of success in the end. In a recent example, the Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed a trial court’s ruling that raised an ex-husband’s spousal support obligation to make up for the man’s declining receipt of future military pension payments. The ex-wife was not allowed to receive this money as spousal support because the law doesn’t allow judges to increase spousal support just to make up for lost community property interests. The ex-wife was entitled to receive this money, but it just could not be in the form of spousal support.

The couple, Robert Cassinelli and Janice Cassinelli, divorced in 1986 after 22 years of marriage. Before the couple divorced, the husband had retired from the U.S. Air Force after 20 years of service. As part of the divorce judgment in the Cassinellis’ case, the trial judge ordered the husband to pay the wife her portion of the community property interest in his military retirement pension.

Some 26 years after the court issued the final judgment, the military determined that the husband had suffered a combat-related injury due to his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. This decision meant that the husband had a choice to make. His injury allowed him to receive both veteran’s disability benefits and combat-related special compensation (CRSC), but in order to do so, he had to waive receiving any more pension payments. The husband chose to waive the pension and receive the disability and special compensation payments.

The husband’s choice brought an end to the $541 monthly payments the wife had been receiving from the pension. She went to court, seeking a resumption of her payments. The trial judge concluded that the husband’s waiver of his pension and receipt of the disability and special compensation pay amounted to a sufficient “material change of circumstances” to allow a change in the wife’s spousal support. The court then ordered the husband to pay the wife an extra $541 each month, declaring it to be “permanent and nonmodifiable spousal support.”

The husband appealed, and the appeals court agreed that the trial court had made an error in its ruling, although the appeals court’s resolution may not have been the outcome the husband ideally sought.

When a judge orders a spouse to pay support or orders an increase in the support obligation amount, the law requires the judge to factor in many things. These include the supporting spouse’s ability to pay, each spouse’s assets and obligations, and the financial needs of each spouse in relation to the standard of living they enjoyed as a married couple. Ordering support that matches, dollar-for-dollar, the amount of a community property interest that one spouse lost unavoidably demonstrates that the trial judge failed to consider all of the law’s factors, which meant that this support award had to be reversed.

The appeals court did, however, agree with the trial court that the wife was entitled to the money, but just not in the form of spousal support. The husband was not allowed to deprive the wife of a community property interest through a decision he made unilaterally. The trial court was entitled to order the husband to pay the wife the $541 every month, but the law required that the payment be categorized as reimbursement for damages, rather than spousal support.

In your family law case, the details matter — both the factual ones and the legal ones. To make sure that you have a strong case, you need skilled counsel on your side. The diligent San Diego property division attorneys at Doppelt and Forney, APLC have been assisting clients throughout Southern California, including in San Diego, Encinitas, La Jolla, and Chula Vista, for many years and are ready to put the resources of this office to work for you. For a free consultation, reach out to Doppelt and Forney, APLC through our website or call toll-free at (800) ROY IS IT (769-4748).

More blog posts:

Wording of Stipulated Divorce Judgment Didn’t Allow California Husband to Alter Child and Spousal Support Obligations, San Diego Divorce Lawyer Blog, Sept. 13, 2016

California Court Rules Jointly Titled Investment Accounts are Community Property, San Diego Divorce Lawyer Blog, June 7, 2016

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