Attack of the Ex-Spouse: Maryland Court Allows Former Wife to Receive 50 Percent of Deceased Ex-Spouse’s Pension Benefits

The Maryland case Robinette v. Hunsecker, 66 A. 3d 1093 (Md. Ct. App. 2013) is a prime example of why it is so important to review your estate plan, and all related documents, on a regular basis. An estate plan that is locked away in a safe deposit box may actually wind up creating frustration and turmoil for your loved ones.

In Robinette, Luan Hunsecker (“Ms. Hunsecker”) married a man named Roger Robinette (“Mr. Robinette”). During their marriage, Mr. Robinette participated in a pension plan with his employer. After nearly seventeen years of marriage, Ms. Hunsecker and Mr. Robinette decided to get divorced. Like many divorcing couples, they reached an agreement for the division of martial property. Ms. Hunsecker gave up her rights in the marital home, and a boat and a trailer the couple owned. Mr. Robinette agreed to make his ex-wife the “alternate payee” of the pension and their agreement stated that the parties’ judgment of divorce shall be a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO). A QDRO (pronounced “quad row”) is a specific type of domestic relations order that recognizes the right of an “alternate payee” to receive all or part of a pension plan, which belongs to another person. This meant that Ms. Hunsecker’s equitable interest in Mr. Robinette’s pension would be 50 percent of the “marital share” of the pension. However, a QDRO must be issued by a “state authority” (usually a court) through a judgment, order or decree, which addresses a property settlement. In this case, a QDRO was never actually completed.

Time went by and Mr. Robinette re-married and simply named his new spouse as the beneficiary of the pension without reviewing his old separation agreement. In 2009, Mr. Robinette passed away and his now-ex-wife, Ms. Hunsecker, pursued her 50 percent interest in his pension benefits. Since a QDRO was never issued, and Mr. Robinette’s new spouse was named as the beneficiary, Ms. Hunsecker was denied her interest.

However, four years after his death, the Court of Appeals in Robinette affirmed the trial court’s decision allowing Ms. Hunsecker to receive 50 percent of Mr. Robinette’s pension benefits, despite the absence of an entered QDRO.Both women had to go through a four year legal battle over an issue that should have been settled and taken care of beforehand.

So what’s the lesson? If you get divorced, then re-marry, take the time to review all of the pertinent documents, including the separation agreements. A huge part of estate planning is reviewing ALL assets to ensure a smooth transition for your loved ones upon your death or disability. If Mr. Robinette would have had a proper review of his plan while living, a four year legal battle after his death could have been avoided.

Insight Law emphasizes ensuring all of your assets are properly titled along with formal maintenance plan that includes updating your documents every two years. To learn more, check out this article.