Seventh Annual Family Law Institute - May 2nd

I’m honored to be presenting “I’m with —> DOPO” ©, a fun-filled exposé of Ohio’s oft-misunderstood and code-mandated Division of Property Order (DOPO). The CLE is May 2nd, for the Seventh Annual Family Law Institute at the Ohio State Bar Association in Columbus. If you haven’t signed up for the Institute, it’s not too late! You can also join us via webcast by registering here, or download the full brochure of courses here, and I’ve even included a link to download the supplemental materials for my presentation further below.

But only attendees will get the awesome shirt you’re getting a sneak peak of here…

Thank you to the folks at OSBA who put this amazing event together, and to the legal community that makes speaking at these events such a privilege. See you May 2nd!

Click to Download Supplemental MATERIALS

Because wearing a shirt with an O.R.C. inside joke on it isn’t nerdy at all.

Because wearing a shirt with an O.R.C. inside joke on it isn’t nerdy at all.

Even Pending Appeal, Winners and Losers in KRS & KTRS Reforms

Pension 090418.jpg

If you’re a family law attorney in the Cincinnati metro area, there’s a good chance you’ve dealt with a client or spouse of a client who has accrued benefits under either the Kentucky Retirement Systems (KRS), or the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System (KTRS), and you’re no doubt aware of the current uncertainties (merited and otherwise) surrounding their future form and amount(s).

That same uncertainty has spurred some public employees who participate in these plans to retire earlier than they might otherwise have planned, rankling others who feel they’re “gaming the system,” or “double dipping.”  Two Former (and likely to be newly re-elected, this fall) County Prosecutors have found themselves under unexpected scrutiny, and the scapegoats of some Kentucky Legislators (for whom there might be some convenience in highlighting the $60-odd thousand yearly pension of a few individual members, in lieu of the greater systems’ $64 billion in unfunded liabilities, and the stalled reform thereof), for commencing their own pension benefits and running for likely re-election to the same office they vacated to commence them from. In the event either former County Attorney Bobbi Jo Lewis or former Commonwealth’s Attorney Laura Witt return to the offices they retired from, they would draw a salary while receiving pension benefits for their previous service and participation under the Plan(s).

From their perspectives, these attorneys are just making a choice they’re entitled to make, regarding benefits their years of service have entitled them to take. And both cited the uncertainty of ongoing (currently stalled, pending a State Supreme Court ruling on the Governor’s Appeal of the state Attorney General’s successful suit to block the already watered down, but still controversial, Senate Bill 151) reform efforts, as or among their primary reasons for doing so. And, since both are running unopposed, the prospect of their receiving both salaries and pension benefits, come January, seems assured.

In your own practice, you may have encountered clients whose individual benefits, either as Plan Participant or Alternate Payee, seem uncertain at present (whether for real or perceived reasons), which can spell trouble for and complicate property settlement negotiations. And, as Attorneys Lewis and Witt’s examples make clear, individual circumstances and considerations are unique to every plan beneficiary.

The takeaway:
While the current, pending legislation reserves most of its effects for future employees, or those whose benefits in the systems are new or otherwise limited, any negotiations concerning or offsetting individual benefits under the (potentially) affected retirement systems should be done with full cognizance of all prospective changes thereto. Or, if neither the parties nor counsel(ors) wish to navigate the full text of Senate Bill 151 to deduce the exact effect and extent thereof such reform may have on a party or parties’ prospective benefits, you may find that the safest, most assuredly equitable solution is to avoid any offsetting of (potentially) affected benefits entirely, and to instead divide the benefits or portion(s) therein between the parties via… you guessed it: QDRO.

(If you do, be sure to utilize the form specified under KRS Chapter 13A, or other controlling regulation, or shoot an email to your friendly, QDRO blogging expert for a contract to get started.)

Be sure to check back for updates leading up to Governor Bevin’s September 20th Kentucky Supreme Court challenge, or read more about previous iterations and developments of Kentucky's pension reform on our blog, here.

Hammertime - Part Four: Ohio Case Law Updates

What's round on the end and high in the middle? QDROs, that's what.

What's round on the end and high in the middle? QDROs, that's what.

We've almost made it all the way through my four-part 'Hammertime' blog series! I don't know about you, but I'm getting pretty exhausted with all this QDRO news, so here's that .gif of MC Hammer dancing again.  Let us all look to its perpetual motion, and effortless, unending dance, as a source of strength, and a testament to the boundless nature of human endurance...  And endurance you'll need, because we've now entered the final installment of my 'Hammertime' blog series, highlighting some of the most recent and important decisions coming out of Ohio.

Cook v. Cook, 9th Dist. Summit No. DR-2003-08-3121, 2017-Ohio-8848
Trial Court has Broad Discretion to Determine Marital Property Interests in a Pension

Dated: December 6, 2017
Affirming

This is a great case for a refresher course on your favorite thing, coverture!  In this case, the decree stated, in part, that Husband’s OPERS pension (payable at Husband’s retirement as a stream of future monthly benefits over his lifetime) should be equally divided by DOPO (Division of Property Order), and that, for purposes of making the division, the marital period was from the date of marriage to the date of trial.  The subsequent DOPO, entered by the trial court and signed by both parties, awarded Wife a percentage of a fraction of Husband’s benefits (50% of the coverture fraction, i.e., number of years of marriage overlapping with OPERS participation, divided by total years of service credit).   The DOPO did not indicate a limit to the number of monthly payments Wife should receive.  Ten years later, Husband claimed that the DOPO should terminate because Wife had, by the time of his motion, received half of the marital portion of his OPERS pension (based on what appeared to be a present day cash valuation he obtained for the term of marriage).  Husband further claimed that if the DOPO was not terminated, the trial court would otherwise run afoul of improperly modifying the decree by way of the DOPO. 

The crux of Husband’s argument was premised on his notion that the decree provided for a fixed value assignment of the marital portion of the OPERS account to Wife, and that this ascertainable amount had been paid.  The trial court disagreed with Husband’s interpretation of the decree, and determined instead that a specific value had not been established by the terms of the decree, and therefore, that there had likewise been no improper modification of the decree by way of the DOPO. 

This opened the door to the Court of Appeals’ full review of the trial court’s excellent analysis distinguishing the methods that a trial court might employ to determine an equitable division of a pension based on either: a fixed present cash value (for an immediate distribution offset with property other than the pension itself); a frozen coverture method (to divide the pension itself at retirement, with a formula and value that are fixed as of date of divorce); or a traditional coverture method (to divide the pension itself at retirement, with a formula that is based on the value as of the date of retirement - the method employed by the DOPO).  The differences between the three methods, and what circumstances warrant utilization of one over another could be the basis of a white paper; so suffice it to say for this post, at least, that Ohio courts typically utilize the traditional coverture method, as espoused under Hoyt v. Hoyt.   But if you ever get confused, Cook provides an excellent primer.

Berger v. Berger, 11th Dist. Geauga No. 2017-G-0108, No. 2017-Ohio-9329
Trial Court has Broad Discretion to Secure an Awarded Property Interest

Dated: December 29, 2017
Modified and Affirmed as Modified

Although this case is concerned more with the adequacy of the security ordered by the trial court to preserve a spouse’s awarded marital property interest ($1.9 million, which was to be paid over a 12 year period), it is hinged on the proposition that a trial court has broad discretion in fashioning its equitable division of marital property.  To the extent a trial court deems necessary, as in this case, this may include the discretion to order Husband’s maintenance of a life insurance policy for Wife’s benefit to protect her property interest until fully transferred. The take home here: particularly when assigning an interest in a retirement asset that cannot be immediately realized by the assignee spouse, such as with many non-qualified ‘executive’ plans and certain government and church plans exempt from ERISA (which do not accept QDROs or other state court property division orders), precaution must be taken to ensure the transferee spouse’s property interest is secured.  This may be by a term-life policy, or some kind of beneficial interest in the asset itself, such as with a preretirement or postretirement survivor annuity, when available under the plan terms.

Okoye v. Okoye, 9th Dist. Summit No. 2013-09-2546, 2018-Ohio-74
Trial Court has Broad Discretion to Determine Marital Property Interests in a 401(k)

Dated: January 10, 2018
Affirmed

Husband argued that a marital 401(k) account should not be considered marital property subject to division to the extent a portion of it – he claimed – was pledged to re-pay a marital debt, including a loan expended for purposes of medical treatment and the adoption of the couple’s children.  The trial court did not find Husband’s evidence of the debt (his unrebutted oral testimony) to be credible, and instead found Husband had dissipated funds from the account without Wife’s knowledge.  The trial court thus determined the entire account to be marital, and subject to equitable division.  The Court of Appeals, in affirming, reminds us that: “Only in the exceptional case, where the evidence presented weighs heavily in favor of the party seeking reversal, will the appellate court reverse.”  The Court was unimpressed by the fact that the testimony was unrebutted, noting, “The mere fact that testimony is uncontroverted does not necessarily require [a court] to accept the evidence if [it] found that the testimony was not credible.”

Fitzgerald v. Fitzgerald, 8th Dist. Cuyahoga No. DR-14-352039, 2018-Ohio-387
A QDRO that Improperly Modifies the Decree is Voidable for Error and Subject to Appeal

Released and Journalized: February 1, 2018
Reversed and Remanded

The parties in this case agreed that the QDROs entered by the trial court deviated from the terms of their settlement agreement.  The parties disagreed, however, as to whether this made the QDROs "void" for lack of subject matter jurisdiction (meaning the QDROs were not final appealable judgments, but could be vacated or set aside under the inherent powers of the trial court), or "voidable" for error only, and subject only to appeal for review of the error concerned.  The Court traversed a riddled landscape of prior case law within the 2nd and 8th Districts – including review of the dangers inherent in “jurisdictionalizing” error – and determined that the QDROs, which were agreed to be non-compliant with the settlement terms, were not void for lack of jurisdiction, but rather, voidable for error, and appealable.  Since the appeals were timely filed, the Court vacated the QDROs, and remanded to the trial court for further review in light of the parties’ agreement.  

As an aside, noting the potential consequence of its decision, in that often a plan administrator may reject a QDRO long after the time for an appeal has expired, the Court opined that when there was no issue regarding the conformity of a QDRO to settlement terms, but rather an issue arises because a plan administrator subsequently refuses the terms of the QDRO, a Rule 60(B) motion is the appropriate venue for reconsideration. 

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

In closing out 'Hammertime' - I can't resist hammering it home with this final gem.  The takeaway?  Sometimes when you have a hammer, it really is a nail!  Thanks to Maury White, Esq. for sharing this from a past IACP workshop.

Hammertime Installments:

Additional Links of Interest for Diehard QDRO Fans: