ROSE V. ROSE, 481 U. S. 619 (1987)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Rose v. Rose, 481 U.S. 619 (1987)

Rose v. Rose

No. 85-1206

Argued March 4, 1987

Decided May 18, 1987

481 U.S. 619


Appellant, a totally disabled veteran whose main source of income is federal veterans' benefits, was held in contempt by the state trial court for failure to pay child support, the amount of which had been fixed by the court after considering appellant's benefits to be income under a Tennessee statute. The State Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting appellant's contention that the Veterans' Administration (VA) has exclusive jurisdiction to specify payments of child support from the disability benefits it provides. The court determined that Congress intended disability benefits to support the beneficiary and his dependents, and held that the trial court's order directing appellant to pay a portion of those benefits as child support or be held in contempt did not undermine a substantial federal interest.

Held: A state court has jurisdiction to hold a disabled veteran in contempt for failing to pay child support, even if the veteran's only means of satisfying this obligation is to utilize veterans' benefits received as compensation for a service-connected disability. The Tennessee statute, as construed by the state courts to authorize an award of disability benefits as child support, is not preempted under the Supremacy Clause of Article VI, since it does not conflict with federal law. Pp. 481 U. S. 625-636.

(a) Title 38 U.S.C. § 3107(a)(2), which gives the VA discretionary authority to apportion disability compensation on behalf of a veteran's children, is not an exclusive grant of authority to the VA to order that child support be paid from disability benefits, and does not indicate that exercise of the VA's discretion could yield independent child support determinations in conflict with existing state court orders. Moreover, the implementing regulations, which simply authorize apportionment if "the veteran is not reasonably discharging his or her [child support] responsibility . . . ," contain few guidelines for apportionment, and no specific procedures for bringing claims. Furthermore, to construe § 3107(a)(2) as preemptive could open for reconsideration a vast number of existing divorce decrees affecting disabled veterans, and lead in future cases to piecemeal litigation before the state courts and the VA. Given the traditional authority of state courts over child support, their unparalleled familiarity with local economic factors affecting the issue, and their experience in applying state statutes that contain detailed support guidelines and procedures, it seems certain that Congress would have been

Page 481 U. S. 620

more explicit had it meant the VA's apportionment power to displace state court authority. Pp. 481 U. S. 626-628.

(b) Title 38 U.S.C. § 211(a), which provides that VA decisions on benefits for veterans and their dependents are final, conclusive, and not subject to review by any other federal official or federal court, does not vest exclusive jurisdiction in the VA, nor preempt state court jurisdiction to enforce a veteran's child support obligation. Section 211(a) makes no reference to state court jurisdiction. Moreover, its purpose of achieving uniformity in the administration of veterans' benefits is not threatened by state child support contempt proceedings, which do not review the disability eligibility decisions that are the primary focus of the section. Furthermore, since the VA is not a party in a contempt proceeding, it is not subjected to an additional litigation burden, the prevention of which is also a purpose of § 211(a). Pp. 481 U. S. 628-630.

(c) State court jurisdiction is not preempted by 38 U.S.C. § 3101(a), which provides that veterans' benefits payments made to, or on account of, a beneficiary, shall not be liable to attachment, levy, or seizure. Neither of § 3101(a)'s purposes -- to avoid the VA's being placed in the position of a collection agency and to prevent the deprivation and depletion of veterans' means of subsistence -- is constrained by allowing the state courts to hold appellant in contempt. The VA is not obliged to participate in the state proceedings or pay benefits directly to appellee. Moreover, the legislative history establishes that disability benefits are intended to provide compensation for disabled veterans and their families. Wissner v. Wissner, 338 U. S. 655, Hisquierdo v. Hisquierdo, 439 U. S. 572, and Ridgway v. Ridgway, 454 U. S. 46, distinguished. Pp. 481 U. S. 630-634.

(d) Provisions of the Child Support Enforcement Act, which provide that moneys payable by the Government to any individual are subject to child support enforcement proceedings (42 U.S.C. § 659(a)), but which specifically exclude VA disability benefits, do not establish a congressional intent to exempt such benefits from legal process. Section 659(a) was intended to create a limited waiver of sovereign immunity so that state courts could issue valid orders directed against Government agencies attaching funds in their possession. Thus, although veterans' disability benefits may be exempt from attachment while in the VA's hands, once they are delivered to the veteran, a state court can require that they be used to satisfy a child support order. Pp. 481 U. S. 634-635.


MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J.,and BRENNAN, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined, and in Parts I, II-A, II-B, II-D, and III of which STEVENS and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed dn opinion concurring in part and concurring in the

Page 481 U. S. 621

judgment, in which STEVENS, J., joined, post, p. 481 U. S. 636. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 481 U. S. 640. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 481 U. S. 644.

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