In a battle between a teacher’s ex-wife and his widow over his pension benefits, a Maryland appeals court has ruled for the ex.
Luan Hunsecker, the former spouse of Roger Robinette, is entitled to the benefits under the couple’s separation agreement, in which she gave up her claims for alimony and her rights in the couple’s home, boat and trailer, the Court of Special Appeals held. The couple divorced in 1998.
Robinette’s designation of his surviving wife, Lori, as his pension beneficiary after their June 2000 marriage carried no legal weight due to the pre-existing separation agreement with Hunsecker, the appeals court affirmed.
The unanimous three-judge panel also found it insignificant that Hunsecker failed to obtain a judge’s Qualified Domestic Relations Order, or QDRO, prior to Robinette’s death in a car crash on Oct. 2, 2009.
A QDRO — the court order that directs a retirement plan to pay benefits as authorized in the divorce action — can be issued posthumously, the Court of Special Appeals said in affirming a January 2012 Frederick County Circuit Court decision.
“Ms. Hunsecker and Mr. Robinette reached the agreement only after she transferred and assigned all her rights, title and interest in the marital home, providing the proceeds of any sale would be the ‘sole and exclusive property’ of Mr. Robinette,” Judge Michele D. Hotten wrote for the Court of Special Appeals.
“In addition, Ms. Hunsecker further conveyed all her rights, title, and interest in a boat and trailer the couple owned, and she released and discharged any claims for … alimony,” Hotten added in her 56-page reported opinion Wednesday.
“As a consequence, we find no difficulty in holding that the evidence was sufficient for the trial court to conclude that a constructive trust arose out of Mr. Robinette’s failure to designate Ms. Hunseker as his alternate payee irrespective of the parties’ failure to acquire a QDRO prior to Mr. Robinette’s death.”
The widow’s appellate attorney, Peter D. Fitzpatrick, noted that the issue of whether a QDRO can be issued posthumously is an issue that the Court of Appeals has not yet decided.
While he had not yet discussed plans for further appeal with his client, “I’m always eager for the opportunity to argue before the Court of Appeals,” said Fitzpatrick, of Weaver & Fitzpatrick P.A. in Frederick.
Hunsecker’s appellate attorney said justice was achieved with last week’s decision, which allows Hunsecker to collect Robinette’s pension of $700 per month for life, as well as the $17,000 that had been paid to Lori Robinette prior to the trial court’s ruling.
“This was a bargained-for exchange,” Brian E. Barkley said, referring to the settlement agreement.
“Part of what she got was a share of the pension,” he added. “She gets what she bargained for.”
Barkley lauded the appellate court for applying Maryland general principles of law and equity in holding that the absence of a formal QDRO at the time of Robinette’s death did not make the settlement agreement void.
“This is absolutely the right result,” said Barkley, of Barkley & Kennedy Chtd. in Rockville and Frederick. “The right result triumphed over technicality.”
Private vs. public employees
Even so, the result might have been different had Robinette, a public-school teacher, worked for a private company rather than a governmental entity, the Court of Special Appeals said.
Private pensions fall under the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act, which generally provides that benefits be paid to the named beneficiary on retirement plans. ERISA, however, did not apply because Robinette’s pension was based on his 26 years as a media specialist for Montgomery County Public Schools, including a stint at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, where he was a teacher when he died at age 59.
In an unrelated case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that a federal employee’s ex-wife who was never removed as the named beneficiary of her ex-husband’s federal employee life insurance policy could not be denied those benefits — despite the objections of the man’s widow.
The high court held that the Federal Employees’ Group Life Insurance Act trumped a Virginia law that would have allowed the widow to sue to recover the funds.
“In short, where a beneficiary has been duly named, the insurance proceeds she is owed under FEGLIA cannot be allocated to another person by operation of state law,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the high court in Mondays’ case, Hillman v. Maretta, No. 11-1221.
Despite the similar outcome in Hunsecker’s case, the underlying facts were very different.
Robinette and Hunsecker had been married for 17 years when they executed a voluntary separation agreement on April 16, 1998, which provided that she receive his pension. Their divorce became final that August.
After learning of her ex-husband’s death, Hunsecker sought to recover the pension benefits. The school system rejected the request because it had not received a QDRO, according to the Court of Special Appeals’ opinion.
Hunsecker sued Lori Robinette in Frederick County Circuit Court on Jan. 20, 2011, claiming the widow was being unjustly enriched by pension benefits that rightly belonged to Hunsecker.
In January 2012, Judge G. Edward Dwyer Jr. ruled in Hunsecker’s favor and ordered the issuance of a posthumous QDRO consistent with the separation agreement.
Lori Robinette then sought review by the Court of Special Appeals, which affirmed.
Pat Murphy of Lawyers USA, a sister publication of The Daily Record, contributed to this report.
WHAT THE COURT HELD
Lori A. Robinette v. Luan Hunsecker, CSA No. 2444 Sept. Term 2011. Reported. Opinion by Hotten, J. Argued Jan. 7, 2013. Filed May 29, 2013.
Did the circuit court err by entering a Qualified Domestic Relations Order after the death of the ex-husband?
No; the posthumous QDRO was appropriate in light of the separation agreement the former spouses had reached.
Peter D. Fitzpatrick for appellant; Brian E. Barkley for appellee.
RecordFax # 13-0529-02 (57 pages)