The Bite of Draftsmanship
September 15, 2014 § Leave a comment
How you draft your legal instruments can have a huge impact on your clients’ future.
Take, for instance, the parties’ property settlement agreement (PSA) in the case of Aaron v. Aaron, a COA case handed down September 9, 2014. George and Annie Aaron were divorced in 2002 on the ground of irreconcilable differences. At the time, George was employed with the Amory Police Department, and was a participant in PERS. We don’t know from the court’s opinion the exact language of the parties’ agreement, but we know this much from ¶ 1:
As part of the divorce, George agreed to pay Annie one-half of his retirement funds acquired during the marriage. The judgment stated the funds would be transferred through a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO). At the time the judgment was entered, George was not receiving any retirement benefits. The judgment did not state which party was responsible for entering the QDRO.
We also can divine from the opinion that: the language of the PSA did not specify whether Annie was to receive 1/2 of the retirement accumulated during the marriage, or 1/2 of all George’s retirement, a significant portion of which would be earned after the divorce; it did not spell out what consideration would be given to future pay increases on George’s ultimate obligation to Annie; it also did not settle the question whether the payments were intended to be paid out in a lump sum as property settlement or whether they were intended to be paid monthly as benefits were paid out to George, in the nature of alimony.
The legal considerations that remained unaddressed in the parties’ agreement were, at least, the following:
- PERS takes the position that federal ERISA and Mississippi law do not allow division of PERS benefits by QDRO. The agreement should have provided that it would be divided by payment, unless George left PERS employment and withdrew his account, at which time it would be divided by specified percentages between them. No mention should have been made of a QDRO vis a vis the PERS benefits. Also, whose responsibility it was to trigger the payment of benefits should have been specified in the agreement.
- Final calculation of the PERS benefit is based on the highest four years of earnings. Since George was not a retirement age at the time of the divorce (he did not retire until 2011), the parties should have negotiated and included in their agreement how Annie’s 1/2 benefit would be calculated, taking into account the probability of George’s future pay increases.
- PERS benefits can not be paid out in a lump sum unless the employee leaves PERS employment. As mentioned above, this obvious point should have been addressed in the parties’ agreement. In essence, these parties had no choice but to have Annie’s share paid out over time. That is what the chancellor in Pruitt v. Pruitt tried to do, but was reversed by the COA. The problem, based on Pruitt, seems easy to address in a rational way, but is in reality deceptively difficult to resolve.
Every one of the foregoing deficiencies came back to bite these parties in the proverbial nether regions. Annie brought a contempt action against George because he did not initiate a QDRO, and for her unpaid benefits. George countered that he owed nothing, since PERS could not be divided by QDRO. The chancellor calculated what she concluded was Annie’s portion, and ordered that Annie receive that from George’s retirement payments as paid, and she awarded Annie a judgment with modest interest for the benefits that he had received and not shared with Annie. She died not find George in contempt.
George appealed, raising all of the points above. The COA affirmed.
It would have saved everyone involved a lot of legal fees, costs, aggravation, anxiety, and time if only some more attention and effort had been put into the drafting of the PSA in the first place. Yes, it would have required more time for negotiation and drafting, but it would have settled the issue as early as 2011 without the need for further litigation. It’s called draftsmanship.