Death, Divorce and the Division of Property and Estates
When a party dies during the pendency of a divorce matter, a question immediately arises: will the matter be resolved pursuant to the Divorce Code (i.e.: 23 Pa.C.S.A. Section 3323(d.1)) or the Probate Code (i.e.: 20 Pa.C.S.A. Section 6111.2)? While the statutes are fairly clear, there are times where a circumstance still needs to be sorted out by the court. Such a case arose in the Superior Court of Pennsylvania matter of In re Estate of Michael J. Easterday, Deceased, 171 A.3d 911 (2017).
In the Easterday matter, the decedent, Michael Easterday, passed from this life on Sept. 21, 2014, and was survived by his two sons, a daughter and his second wife. About a year before Easterday’s death (Aug. 13, 2013), the wife filed for divorce against Easterday. In or about December 2013, Easterday and the wife entered into a postnuptial agreement in which the parties agreed to waive any and all rights to the pension and retirement plan of the other, including any and all rights possibly available as a surviving spouse or beneficiary. The agreement also specifically states that it would remain in full force and effect without regard to future reconciliation, change in marital status, and entry of divorce decree absent a future written agreement.
Critically, at the time of Easterday’s passing, the wife remained the beneficiary of his pension and life insurance policy. Upon Easterday’s death, the wife immediately withdrew the divorce matter and collected on Easterday’s pension and life insurance policy.
In response to the wife’s petition with the court seeking to compel the wife to preserve and return the pension and insurance money she received. The estate contended that the postnuptial controlled the distribution of the aforesaid funds (specifically that the wife was not entitled to receive them) and Easterday’s designation of the wife as beneficiary of his insurance policy became ineffective pursuant to 20 Pa.C.S.A. Section 6111.2. In response, the wife argued that the postnuptial did not apply as the beneficiary designations were never changed, that 20 Pa.C.S.A. Section 6111.2 did not apply as the affidavit of consent was “stale,” that the parties were reconciling at the time of his death, and because of those reasons, Easterday intended that the wife remain his beneficiary.
After a hearing, the trial court ruled that the estate was entitled to Easterday’s pension, as it was addressed in the postnuptial, while the wife could retain the life insurance proceeds as they were not addressed in the postnuptial. Both parties filed exceptions, which were unsuccessful, leading to appeals by both parties to Superior Court which issued the decision described herein.
23 Pa.C.S.A. Section 3323(g), which is part of the Divorce Code, states: “(g) Grounds established . . . (2) In the case of an action for divorce under section 3301(c), both parties have filed affidavits of consent or, if the presumption in section 3301(c)(2) is established, one party has filed an affidavit of consent … (3) In the case of an action for divorce under section 3301(d), an affidavit has been filed and no counter-affidavit has been filed or, if a counter-affidavit has been filed denying the affidavit’s averments, the court determines that the marriage is irretrievably broken and the parties have lived separate and apart for at least one year at the time of the filing of the affidavit.” In the Probate Code, 20 Pa.C.S.A. Section 6111.2(a)(3)(ii) states “this section is applicable if an individual … dies during the course of divorce proceedings, no decree of divorce has been entered pursuant to 23 Pa.C.S. Section 3323 (relating to decree of court) and grounds have been established as provided in 23 Pa.C.S. Section 3323(g).” When evaluating the applicable law mentioned above, the court raised Pa.R.C.P. 1920.17 as also applicable herein. Rule 1920.17 prohibits the withdrawal of a divorce (and its economic claims) if divorce grounds have been established and the Estate does not the consent. While the aforesaid Rule directly applies to 23 Pa.C.S. Section 3323, the court opined that the Rule should also apply to 20 Pa.C.S.A. Section 6111.2(a)(3)(ii) as it would be inappropriate to allow a surviving spouse the power to negate 20 Pa.C.S.A. Section 6111.2(a)(3)(ii) by simply discontinuing the divorce action unilaterally.
In reviewing the underlying facts of this matter, the court took note of the fact that the affidavit of consent was not filed within thirty days of its execution. As a result, the lower court determined that divorce grounds were never established. Although the Estate argued that the lateness of the affidavit does not negate what it argued was an intent to consent to the divorce, the court, relying on public policy considerations, ruled that a strict compliance with the Divorce Code is required. In the court’s view, the integrity of the family is to be protected and the seriousness of the dissolution of marriage warrants strict compliance with the deadlines and requirements laid out in the statute. Indeed, the court pointed out, the establishment of divorce grounds takes on an added significance when, not only is the dissolution of a marriage at issue, but, in this case, it would also determine whether the Divorce Code or the Probate Code applies. Furthermore, the court observed that Easterday had an extended opportunity of several months to rectify the “stale” affidavit before his passing, but chose not to do so. Based on the above, the court ruled that a “stale” affidavit of consent is insufficient to establish divorce grounds, especially in a matter where it is, in its estimation, far from clear that the decedent possessed an intent to divorce at the time of his death. As a result, the Probate Code controls this case.
Ultimately, the court, applying 20 Pa.C.S.A. Section 6111.2, ruled that Easterday’s beneficiary designation on his life insurance is, therefore, valid, and the wife may retain the proceeds from the same.
In opposition to the estate’s arguments, the wife asserted that Easterday made a deliberate and conscious choice to give his pension to her through an irrevocable election that she be his beneficiary. Of course, the above is in direct conflict with the postnuptial, which, by its terms described above, definitively prohibits the wife from being such a beneficiary. The estate pointed out that the postnuptial was executed after the beneficiary election was made.
In reviewing the above, the court first noted that spouses may waive their right to the pension of the other if the waiver is specific. In its estimation, the postnuptial in the instant matter was clear and unambiguous, therefore its terms, namely that the wife waived her right to Easterday’s pension without regard to reconciliation, which could only be changed by a subsequent signed agreement, applies hereto.
Perhaps the most significant legal challenge to the postnuptial was the requirements of the Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). Pursuant to ERISA, a pension must be administered, and the proceeds therefrom distributed, according to the terms of the plan documents, and not alternative agreements, such as a postnuptial agreement. While acknowledging the applicability of ERISA to the pension in this matter, the court also indicated that, although ERISA may require the pension to be distributed to wife, the terms of the postnuptial can also apply by requiring Wife to turn over to the estate any and all sums she receives as a pension beneficiary.
In the end, the court entered a Solomonic decision to cut the pension “baby” in half: the wife can keep the life insurance policy proceeds while the estate is to receive from the wife the pension proceeds she received.