Wissner v. Wissner, 338 U.S. 655 (1950)

Author: Justice Clark

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Wissner v. Wissner, 338 U.S. 655 (1950)

MR. JUSTICE CLARK delivered the opinion of the Court.

We are to determine whether the California community property law, as applied in this case, conflicts with certain provisions of the National Service Life Insurance Act of 1940,{1} and, if so, whether the federal law is consistent with the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The cause is here on appeal from the final judgment of a California District Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court of California having denied a hearing. Reading the opinion below as a decision that the federal statute was unconstitutional, we noted probable jurisdiction. 28 U.S.C. § 1257(1).

The material facts are not in dispute. Appellants are the parents, and appellee the widow, of Major Leonard O. Wissner, who died in India in 1945 in the service of the United States Army. He had enlisted in the Army in November, 1942, and, in January, 1943, subscribed to a National Service Life Insurance policy in the principal sum of $10,000, which policy was in effect at the date of his death. The opinion below indicates that the decedent and appellee were estranged at the time he entered the Army, or shortly thereafter. In January, 1943, he requested his attorney to "get an insurance policy away" from appellee. After six months in the service, decedent stopped the allotment to his wife, and, in September, 1943, expressed the wish that he "could find some way of forcing plaintiff to a settlement and a divorce." It is not surprising, therefore, that, without the knowledge or consent of his wife, the Major named his mother principal and his father contingent beneficiary under his National Service Life Insurance policy. Since his death, the United States Veterans’ Administration has been paying his mother the proceeds of the policy in monthly installments.

In 1947, the Major’s widow brought action against the appellants in the Superior Court for Stanislaus County, California, alleging that, under California community property law, she was entitled to one-half the proceeds of the policy. Appellants answered that their designation as beneficiaries was "final and conclusive as against any claimed rights" of appellee. The court found that the decedent and his widow had been married in 1930, and, until the date of Major Wissner’s death, had been legally domiciled there, and subject to the state’s community property laws. Major Wissner’s army pay, which was held to be community property under California law,{2} was the source of the premiums paid on the policy. But no claim was made for the premiums; the widow sought the proceeds of the insurance. The court concluded that, consistent with California law in the ordinary insurance case, the proceeds of this policy "were and are the community property" of the widow and the decedent, and entered judgment for appellee for one-half the amount of payments already received, plus interest, and required appellants to pay appellee one-half of all future payments "immediately upon the receipt thereof" by appellees or either thereof. The District Court of Appeal affirmed, 89 Cal.App.2d 759, 201 P.2d 837 (1949), holding that appellee had a "vested right" to the insurance proceeds, and the Supreme Court of California denied a hearing, one judge dissenting.

We are of the opinion that the decision below was incorrect. The National Service Life Insurance Act is the congressional mode of affording a uniform and comprehensive system of life insurance for members and veterans of the armed forces of the United States. A liberal policy toward the serviceman and his named beneficiary is everywhere evident in the comprehensive statutory plan. Premiums are very low, and are waived during the insured’s disability; costs of administration are borne by the United States; liabilities may be discharged out of congressional appropriations.

The controlling section of the Act provides that the insured

shall have the right to designate the beneficiary or beneficiaries of the insurance [within a designated class], . . . and shall . . . at all times have the right to change the beneficiary or beneficiaries. . . .

38 U.S.C. § 802(g). Thus, Congress has spoken with force and clarity in directing that the proceeds belong to the named beneficiary, and no other. Pursuant to the congressional command, the Government contracted to pay the insurance to the insured’s choice. He chose his mother. It is plain to us that the judgment of the lower court, as to one-half of the proceeds, substitutes the widow for the mother, who was the beneficiary Congress directed shall receive the insurance money. We do not share appellee’s discovery of congressional purpose that widows in community property states participate in the payments under the policy, contrary to the express direction of the insured. Whether directed at the very money received from the Government or an equivalent amount, the judgment below nullifies the soldier’s choice, and frustrates the deliberate purpose of Congress. It cannot stand.

The judgment under review has a further deficiency so far as it ordered the diversion of future payments as soon as they are paid by the Government to the mother. At least in this respect, the very payments received under the policy are to be "seized," in effect, by the judgment below. This is in flat conflict with the exemption provision contained in 38 U.S.C. § 454a, made a part of this Act by 38 U.S.C. § 816: payments to the named beneficiary

shall be exempt from the claims 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. . . .

We recognize that some courts have ruled that this and similar exemptions relating to pensions and veterans’ relief do not apply when alimony or the support of wife or children is in issue. See Schlaefer v. Schlaefer, 71 App.D.C. 350, 112 F.2d 177 (1940); Tully v. Tully, 159 Mass. 91, 34 N.E. 79 (1893); Hodson v. New York City Employees’ Retirement System, 243 App.Div. 480, 278 N.Y.S. 16 (1935); In re Guardianship of Bagnall, 238 Iowa 905, 29 N.W.2d 597 (1947), and cases therein cited. But cf. Brewer v. Brewer, 19 Tenn. App. 209, 84 S.W.2d 1022, 1040 (1933). We shall not attempt to epitomize a legal system at least as ancient as the customs of the Visigoths,{3} but we must note that the community property principle rests upon something more than the moral obligation of supporting spouse and children: the business relationship of man and wife for their mutual monetary profit. See de Funiak, Community Property, § 11 (1943). Venerable and worthy as this community is, it is not, we think, as likely to justify an exception to the congressional language as specific judicial recognition of particular needs, in the alimony and support cases. Our view of those cases, whatever it may be, is irrelevant here.{4} Further, Congress has provided in the National Service Life Insurance Act that the chosen beneficiary of the life insurance policy shall be, during life, the sole owner of the proceeds.

The constitutionality of the congressional mandate above expounded need not detain us long. Certainly Congress, in its desire to afford as much material protection as possible to its fighting force, could wisely provide a plan of insurance coverage. Possession of government insurance, payable to the relative of his choice, might well directly enhance the morale of the serviceman. The exemption provision is his guarantee of the complete and full performance of the contract to the exclusion of conflicting claims. The end is a legitimate one within the congressional powers over national defense, and the means are adapted to the chosen end. The Act is valid. McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 421 (1819). And, since the statute which made the insurance proceeds possible was explicit in announcing that the insured shall have the right to designate the recipient of the insurance, and that "No person shall have a vested right" to those proceeds, 38 U.S.C. § 802(i), appellee could not, in law, contemplate their capture. The federal statute establishes the fund in issue, and forestalls the existence of any "vested" right in the proceeds of federal insurance. Hence, no constitutional question is presented. However "vested" her right to the proceeds of nongovernmental insurance under California law, that rule cannot apply to this insurance. Compare W. B. Worthen Co. v. Thomas, 292 U.S. 426 (1934); Lynch v. United States, 292 U.S. 571 (1934). See Hines v. Lowrey, 305 U.S. 85 (1938); Norman v. Baltimore & Ohio R. Co., 294 U.S. 240 (1935); Ruddy v. Rossi, 248 U.S. 104 (1918).

The judgment below is


MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

1. 54 Stat. 1008, as amended, 38 U.S.C. § 801 et seq. Amendments added in 1946, 60 Stat. 781, do not concern us here.

2. We assume the correctness of the lower court’s statement of state law. See also French v. French, 17 Cal.2d 775, 112 P.2d 235 (1941). The view we take of this case makes it unnecessary to decide whether California is entitled to call army pay community property.

3. See Lobingier, An Historical Introduction to Community Property Law, 8 Nat.L.Rev. (No. 2), p. 45 (1928); de Funiak, Community Property, c. II (1943).

4. There are, of course, support aspects to the community property principle, and, in some cases, they may be of considerable importance. Likewise, alimony may not be limited to the amount essential to support the divorced spouse. But we do not think the Congress would have intended decision to turn on factual variations in the spouse’s need. If there is a distinction to be drawn, we think it must be based upon a generalization as to the dominating characteristics of a particular class of cases -- alimony cases, support cases, community property cases. The alimony cases have uniformly been decided on that basis.


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Chicago: Clark, "Clark, J., Lead Opinion," Wissner v. Wissner, 338 U.S. 655 (1950) in 338 U.S. 655 338 U.S. 657–338 U.S. 661. Original Sources, accessed February 6, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8FV32WPRQYJHQ9N.

MLA: Clark. "Clark, J., Lead Opinion." Wissner v. Wissner, 338 U.S. 655 (1950), in 338 U.S. 655, pp. 338 U.S. 657–338 U.S. 661. Original Sources. 6 Feb. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8FV32WPRQYJHQ9N.

Harvard: Clark, 'Clark, J., Lead Opinion' in Wissner v. Wissner, 338 U.S. 655 (1950). cited in 1950, 338 U.S. 655, pp.338 U.S. 657–338 U.S. 661. Original Sources, retrieved 6 February 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8FV32WPRQYJHQ9N.