by Jere Beery
When most people think of the Supreme Court they think of the highest legal court in the land with absolute supremacy over all things legal. They envision a federal court consisting of 9 appointed judges assigned with hearing and ruling on issues that have failed to be resolved at the lower court level. According to Operation Firing For Effect National Chairman Gene Simes there are some issues that the Supreme Court has no business tampering with, in particular, the disposition of veteran’s disability benefits.
According to United States Code, Title 38, the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs is the only entity authorized to make decisions concerning the eligibility and payment criteria of veteran’s disability compensation. However, two Supreme Court rulings arbitrarily circumvent the authority of the Department of Veterans Affairs and contradict the intent and wording of federal code. ROSE v. ROSE, 481 U.S. 619 (1987), and MANSELL v. MANSELL, 490 U.S. 581 (1989) both deal with the assign ability of veteran’s disability compensation to a former spouse. According to Gene Simes, both cases should not have been heard by the Supreme Court. Simes points to USC, Title 38, Section 5301 to support his claim; “Payments of benefits due or to become due under any law administered by the Secretary shall not be assignable except to the extent specifically authorized by law, and such payments made to, or on account of a beneficiary shall be exempt from taxation, shall be exempt from the claim of creditors, and shall not be liable to attachment, levy, or seizure by or under any legal or equitable process whatever, either before or after receipt by the beneficiary”.
“When Congress wrote this statute they intentionally used wording that prohibited outside influence from ‘any legal process whatsoever’ when determining payments of veteran’s disability benefits. Since the Supreme Court is a ‘legal process’, they were restricted from getting involved in the issue as well.” Simes also stated: “I’m certain some individuals will claim this is only one man’s opinion and subject to interpretation. However, it is an opinion that is supported by a comprehensive understanding of the English language as defined by Webster’s dictionary. To suggest that 5301 doesn’t really mean what it says, or means something entirely different is pure snake oil. USC, Title 38, Section 5301 is extremely clear and concise in its verbiage and intent,” Simes added.
When the Supreme Court decided they would dictate who was eligible to receive veteran’s disability compensation, they did more than just violate the federal statute created by Congress to protect veteran’s disability benefits; they also paved the way for every civil court in the country to do the same. For the past 20 years severely disabled veterans have been wrongfully stripped of their earned disability benefits by family court judges who feel justified to award alimony, spousal support, and child support based solely on a disabled veteran’s disability compensation. In many of these cases the disabled veteran has also been ordered to pay the attorney fees of their ex-spouse directly from their VA disability benefits. This unjust practice has resulted in combat disabled veterans unable to afford caring for themselves, or even hiring an attorney to fight for their rights. This single issue is responsible for many cases of homelessness and thoughts of suicide among a large number of destitute and depressed veterans.
It is difficult to purpose a single solution for this mess, as this practice by civil courts is now embedded in the judicial system as ‘the norm’.
Operation Firing For Effect is currently monitoring 54 cases nationwide where civil court judges have wrongly used veteran’s disability compensation as a divisible asset in a divorce settlement, ordering the disabled veteran (male and female) to forfeit a significant portion of their earned benefits to a former spouse or go to jail for contempt. In many of these cases the veterans are severely disabled and unable to work. Their disabilities range from traumatic brain injuries, to amputees, to blinded veterans, PTSD, to wheelchair and housebound veterans. In most of these cases their injuries were incurred as the result of combat, and the disabled veteran has been awarded one of our nation’s highest military awards, the Purple Heart Medal. In many of these cases the veteran was not married at the time of their military service and has no minor children.
Our research also has shown this violation by civil courts is not limited to any one particular state or region in the United States, and is common practice in all 50 states. The problem arises when the disabled veteran is required to submit a sworn financial statement to the court. The court in turn wrongly assesses veteran’s disability compensation as ‘income’ to calculate alimony, spousal support, and child support to be paid by the disabled veteran. In the majority of the cases we are monitoring, VA disability compensation is the ONLY source of livelihood the disabled veteran has to live on.
The end result is that severely disabled veterans are winding up homeless and destitute without financial means to care for themselves. In several of the cases we have documented, the disabled veteran has spent time in jail and even considered suicide over this issue.
Over the past 5 years or so, our organization has contacted many members of Congress with details about this problem. Although everyone we have spoken with agrees that this practice by civil court judges is wrong and contrary to the intent of USC, Title 38, no one has stepped up to correct the situation. When we contacted the Department of Veterans Affairs we were told the DVA will not under any circumstances pay disability benefits to anyone other than the veteran disabled. However, we were also told the DVA is not a law enforcement agency and does not get involved in civil court matters. In all of the cases we are following the disabled veteran is unable to afford the legal fees associated with fighting these court rulings. In several of these cases the disabled veteran has left the state and is currently facing contempt of court charges for failure to pay the court order. These disabled veterans are now considered fugitives and unable to even visit their children for fear of arrest. The reality is, the only thing these veterans are guilty of is refusing to forfeit their earned veteran’s disability compensation to an ineligible third party.
Recent government studies have indicated divorce, homelessness, and suicide are at an all time high among former military personnel. Although the 5301 issue is not responsible for all homelessness and suicides within our military community, we are convinced that this single issue is a contributing factor in many of these cases. When a disabled veteran (man or woman) has been stripped of their earned disability benefits, depression, hopelessness, and despair take their toll on these once strong individuals.
Several national veterans’ service organizations have acknowledged the 5301 problem and have attempted to bring light to the situation. The Disabled Veterans of America (DAV) and the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) have both authored resolutions calling for enforcement of USC, Title 38, Section 5301. In addition, the state of California currently has a bill on the floor of the General Assembly (SB285) calling for the enforcement of this very same federal code.
“When a combat disabled veteran (man, or woman) falls on hard times, losing their job, their house, facing bankruptcy, experiencing failing health, and going through a divorce, the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness can be overwhelming. When facing such hardships in life the one thing a veteran should be able to count on is their military benefits – which they earned with their blood, sweat, and tears. It is at these low points in life when these benefits are needed the most, and when they can help the greatest. To allow anyone to take these benefits from them is cruel and unjust. I honestly believe Congress wrote 5301 with all of this in mind. The sole responsibility for making any/all decisions concerning veteran’s disability benefits falls squarely on the shoulders of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, not the Supreme Court,” Simes added. The question is; how do we repair the damage that has been done to our disabled veterans by the Supreme Court?” Simes concluded.
To learn more about this issue, visit; http://jerebeery.com/5301%20Club.htm