September 19, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Marine Corps veteran and Florida resident, Terry Lynn has been ordered by a Florida judge to pay his ex-wife half of the money he receives in veterans’ disability benefits. Lynn served in the Gulf War in Iraq in the early 90s and was disabled there. He receives $1,500 in veterans’ disability benefits which is all he has to live on. Plus, a federal law shields those benefits from all claims on them. Those claims include debts, medical bills and even taxes, as this article shows (ABC 7, 9/17/14).
ABC 7 contacted the National Veterans Legal Service Program in Washington D.C. They say it's an issue which has been argued across the country. U.S. Title 38 says VA benefits are exempt from taxation, claims of creditors, and other legal processes. It makes no exception for alimony.
But a Florida judge has decided to ignore that law and force Lynn to pay half his benefits to his ex because Florida law says alimony must be calculated on all income of the payer. In short, there’s a conflict between state and federal law. Now, unmentioned in the article is a little matter of law called the “preemption doctrine” under which an intention on the part of the U.S. Congress to preempt a certain area of law means federal law supersedes state law. Given the wording of the U.S. statute and the fact that states have essentially nothing to do with veterans’ benefits, I’d say Lynn can’t be made to pay. But I suspect it’ll be a long time before the case is decided.
For now, Lynn has refused to pay and the judge has jailed him for contempt of court.
Public sentiment regarding the case has been almost 100% on Lynn’s side. Most people point out that his ex-wife never served in the armed forces and of course was never injured in doing so. But Lynn did serve his country and was rendered incapable of supporting himself. The $1,500 he receives is all he has to pay his bills, but his ex wants half of it.
"It's how I pay my bills. There is no way I can afford to pay that amount and still survive," says Lynn.
Now, in this article, his ex-wife, Kathy Lynn tells her side of things (ABC 7, 9/18/14).
"Honestly, it makes me sick to my stomach," says Kathy Lynn, the ex-wife. She says their marriage of nearly 18 years fell apart because of many of the reasons most do, and it wasn't her choice. To sum it up, she says she herself is sick and doesn't have anything; that just because she married a disabled veteran shouldn't leave her with nothing.
"I've been married to the guy for 17 years. I've been to every doctor’s appointment with him. I have been by his side when we had nothing. He lived out of his truck when I met him."
She says the money was never up to her. "The judge is the one who made the decision. I didn't make that decision."
Hmm. If she’s truly sick and unable to support herself, she needs to file for Social Security Disability benefits. That’s what they’re there for. Has she done that? She doesn’t say, but if she hasn’t, she needs to. Receiving benefits that are rightly hers seems a better and more honorable thing to do than to try to put your ex-husband on the street by taking his. On the other hand, if she has applied for SSI and been refused, it strongly suggests she can work and support herself. And if that’s the case, it’s clear who should be paying alimony to whom. Is that what this is all about — her trying to avoid paying alimony to him?
As to her claim that “The judge is the one who made the decision,” that’s true, but ignores the obvious — that she asked him/her to make it. Face it, Kathy Lynn is perfectly within her rights to refuse to request an order of alimony. But clearly, she didn’t do that. So what the judge did is strictly in response to her motion to make an order of alimony.
I’ve often inveighed against the practice of awarding alimony in divorce cases. But one of my exceptions has always been a disabled spouse who can’t support him/herself. That’s the case here. Terry Lynn clearly is unable to support himself and depends on disability payments that are meager enough to ensure he does not more than barely get by. So if Kathy Lynn is able to work, she needs to do so and supplement Terry’s benefits. If she can’t, she needs to receive whatever she’s entitled to under the Social Security system.
Meanwhile, a Florida judge needs to abide by federal law that is clear in exempting veterans’ benefits from being used to award and pay alimony. Then the judge needs to let Terry Lynn out of jail and apologize to him.
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