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Ex-wife, not widow, gets teacher’s pension benefits

In a battle between a teacher’s ex-wife and his widow over his pension benefits, Maryland’s top court has unanimously ruled for the ex.

Luann 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 in exchange for a 50 percent share of his pension, the Court of 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 high court affirmed.

The decision 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 January 2012 ruling in Hunsecker’s favor.

In its ruling, the Court of Appeals found it insignificant that Hunsecker failed to obtain a 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 Appeals said in affirming last year’s decision by the Court of Special Appeals.

“[I]t is clear from the [settlement] agreement that there was a mutual understanding that Ex-Wife had a 50 percent interest in the portion of Husband’s retirement benefits that constituted real property,” Judge Robert N. McDonald wrote for the high court. “While the agreement did not require the Husband to take specific action with respect to the retirement plan, his later action substituting Wife as the beneficiary was contrary to his agreement with Ex-Wife. Whether he intended to undermine that agreement or acted without malevolent intent, the effect was the same and the benefits of his retirement plan that he had agreed belonged to Ex-Wife were paid instead to Wife.”

McDonald, in a footnote, stated that he referred to the parties by their marital status for simplicity’s sake. “No disrespect is intended,” he added.

The widow’s attorney, Laura N. Venezia, stated in an email Friday that she had seen only the court’s judgment of affirmance and had not yet had a chance to read the opinion.

The result is “disappointing [but] at least it clarifies this area for future cases,” wrote Venezia, of Conklyn & Associates in Frederick.

The ex-wife’s lawyer, Brian E. Barkley, did not return telephone and email messages seeking comment Friday. He is with Barkley & Kennedy Chtd. in Frederick and Rockville.

ERISA difference

The case might have come out differently had Robinette, a public school teacher, worked for a private company rather than a governmental entity, the Court of 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.

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, as provided in the settlement agreement. The school system rejected the request because it had not received a QDRO, according to the Court of 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 sought review by the Court of Special Appeals, which affirmed in a reported opinion in June 2013. She then appealed to the high court, which heard the case in April and issued its decision on Friday.

MCDONALD

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

Lori A. Robinette v. Luann Hunsecker, CA No. 190, Sept. Term 2013. Reported. Opinion by McDonald, J. Argued April 3, 2014. Filed July 18, 2014.

Issue:

Did the circuit court err in awarding pension benefits to a teacher’s ex-wife, under terms of their property settlement, rather than to his widow, who was the named beneficiary under his public-school pension plan?

Holding:

No; the pre-existing settlement agreement superseded the subsequent change in named beneficiary and nothing prevents a QDRO from being filed posthumously.

Counsel:

Laura N. Venezia for petitioner; Brian E. Barkley for respondent

RecordFax #14-0718-20 (21 pages)