Supreme Court decision resolves divorce property division issue

Although laws recognizing the benefits of same-sex couples are changing, even a former lawyer’s carefully drafted directives were not honored until her surviving spouse sought court assistance.

The same-sex couple had been married in Canada but never in their home state. When the lawyer died of cancer at the age of 37, her lesbian spouse assumed she would collect on her deceased partner’s death benefits, including a profit-sharing plan where the partner had worked.

However, the surviving parents intervened. They asserted a claim to the death benefits, citing the Defense of Marriage Act as support for their position that the lesbian spouse was not a proper beneficiary. The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent invalidation of DOMA resolved the issue.

The federal judge assigned to the case recently ruled that the spouse should receive the benefits. Although state law generally governs marriage, the terms of the plan at issue in this case were governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA. Consequently, the judge determined that federal law should apply, and awarded the spouse the proceeds of the federally governed plan benefits.

As this post suggests, the division of property in a divorce proceeding may potentially involve multiple areas of law. Retirement accounts and securities are examples of potential marital estates that are also subject to other federal laws. For this reason, a divorce attorney familiar with property division and valuation disputes might provide invaluable assistance, spotting issues that might otherwise go unnoticed and defending against third party claims to those assets. An attorney might also have investigative strategies for uncovering all assets that may have been hidden by another spouse.

Source: articles.philly.com, “Judge awards late lawyer’s benefits to lesbian spouse,” Joseph A. Slobodzian, July 31, 2013