Ridgway v. Ridgway

LOCATION:Tyler Independent School District

DOCKET NO.: 80-1070
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: Maine Supreme Judicial Court

CITATION: 454 US 46 (1981)
ARGUED: Oct 07, 1981
DECIDED: Nov 10, 1981

Curtis Webber – on behalf of Respondents
Joshua I. Schwartz – amicus curiae
Stephen P. Beale – on behalf of Petitioners

Facts of the case


Media for Ridgway v. Ridgway

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – October 07, 1981 in Ridgway v. Ridgway

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – November 10, 1981 in Ridgway v. Ridgway

Warren E. Burger:

The judgment and opinion of the Court in 80-1070, Ridgway against Ridgway will be announced by Mr. Justice Blackmun.

Harry A. Blackmun:

This case presents the issue whether an insured serviceman’s beneficiary designated under a life policy issued pursuant to the Servicemen’s Group Life Insurance Act of 1965 prevails over a constructive trust imposed upon the policy proceeds by a state-court decree.

It is another in a line of recent cases that concerns the impact of state law or state judgments upon statutorily created federal rights.

This is a dispute over the proceeds of a serviceman’s policy.

On the one side of the serviceman’s first wife and their children and on the other, his second wife, who was his widow at his death. Each claimed the policy proceeds.

The former’s claim rested on a divorce decree of a Maine court.

And the widow’s claim rested on the beneficiary designation and her status as widow.

The trial court felt that the imposition of a constructive trust on the policy proceeds would interfere with the operation of a federal Act and would run afoul of the Supremacy Clause.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Maine ruled otherwise and reversed.

In an opinion filed with the clerk today, we in turn reversed the judgment of the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine.

We hold that the insured’s beneficiary designation prevails over the constructive trust imposed upon the policy proceeds by the state court.

As a consequence of the Supremacy Clause, a state divorce decree, like other law governing the economic aspects of domestic relations, must give way to clearly conflicting federal enactments.

The provision of the Act according the insured service members certain rights prevail over and displace inconsistent state law.

The imposition of a constructive trust on the insurance proceed is also inconsistent with the anti-attachment provision of the Act.

A result of this kind, of course, may be avoided if Congress chooses to avoid it.

It is within the power of the Congress.

But thus far, Congress has insulated the proceeds of this insurance from attachment or seizure by any claimant other than the beneficiary designated by the insured or the one first in line under the statutory order of precedence of beneficiaries.

Mr. Justice Powell has filed a dissenting opinion and is joined in that opinion by Mr. Justice Rehnquist.

Mr. Justice Stevens has also filed a dissent and Justice O’Connor took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you Mr. Justice Blackmun.