Are unvested military retirement benefits considered community property?
That's the question a trial court dealt with in the divorce case of Daniel v. Daniel. In this case, Christen and Sean Daniel had married in 1995 and had three children. Just prior to marrying, Sean enlisted in the National Guard and at the time of his divorce, he had served 16 years and had reenlisted for an additional six years.
The parties handled all areas of their dissolution amicably except for the military pension. In court, a judge concluded, "Ohio law does not permit the court to divide a non-vested pension benefit."
The plaintiff argued that her ex-husband had reenlisted and would, therefore, be automatically vested by the time he ended his new commitment. Despite her argument, the court of appeals in Ohio affirmed the trial court's decision.
However, there was a lone dissent opinion issued. The dissenting justice argued the potential military pension was the only marital asset the parties had. Furthermore, while the other justices asserted that a valuation of the plan was necessary to make a decision, the dissenting justice disagreed with that conclusion.
Emboldened by the dissenting justice, Christen Daniel appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court. The Supreme Court justices agreed with Christen Daniel. They even suggested that the parties follow this formula for dividing the benefits: the number of years in service compared to the number of years of marriage.
In explaining their decision, the justices wrote that the starting point in any divorce is the equal division of marital property. Furthermore, it noted that the statute the appellate court had relied on did not distinguish between vested or unvested retirement benefits. The justices remanded the case back to the trial court.
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