The Kansas Supreme Court turned back the marital clock nearly a quarter century Tuesday in search of a resolution of a former Shawnee County couple’s simmering dispute over division of a military retirement benefit.
The case that came before the Supreme Court for oral argument involved U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Alfonza Williams and his former wife, Joann Williams. It has implications for Kansas judges considering the intersection of a state court’s jurisdiction in divorce cases and the weight of federal law regarding military pensions.
The couple was divorced in 1994 following a trial to determine division of assets. A judge’s decree awarded Joann Williams 25 percent of Alfonza Williams’ future retirement benefit. At that time, he didn’t object to that division of the benefit and continued his military career.
In 2013, Joann Williams attempted to enforce a clause in the divorce decree awarding her one-fourth of retirement payments. Alfonza Williams asked the Shawnee County District Court to set aside that part of the decree and for the first time argued the lower court lacked jurisdiction.
The district court found in 2014 and the Kansas Court of Appeals affirmed Joann Williams was entitled to a share of her ex-husband’s military retirement check and $6,000 in attorney fees. Alfonza Williams asked the state Supreme Court to reverse those court decisions.
Michael Riling, the attorney representing Alfonza Williams, said the state’s courts lacked authority under the U.S. Uniformed Services Former Spouses’ Protection Act to consider allocation of Williams’ retirement benefits. At no point in the legal process, Riling said, did his client consent to intervention by the district court.
“Mr. Williams has never consented,” Riling said. “The court lacks jurisdiction. If the court lacks jurisdiction, it can never enter a valid order.”
Attorney Jeffrey Leiker countered on behalf of Joann Williams that the woman’s former husband didn’t raise the central issue of consent during the 1994 divorce trial. In other words, he said, Alfonza Williams’ silence on the issue amounted to consent.
The state’s court system properly followed the law on division of military retirement benefits, he said.
“At what point does this thing become final?” Leiker said. “How many decades are going to have to go by?”