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. 

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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: