The Retirement Time-Bomb

April 30, 2019 § 1 Comment

Many, many divorces include either provisions in PSA’s or adjudications that divide retirement benefits to begin 10, 20, or even more years in the future, long after the time for appeal has run.

What happens when the underlying assumptions upon which that PSA or adjudication is based are changed over time or prove to be inaccurate or untrue?

Carolyn Hall was granted a divorce from Gary Hall on the ground of adultery in 2006. She was awarded alimony, and, as part of the property division, Gary was ordered to pay her: $23,976.23 from his 401(k) plan; $2,976.13 from his stock ownership plan; and $600 per month from his pension if he retired at normal age (based on a projected benefit of $5,212 per month, reflecting the plan’s increase during the parties’ 10-year marriage).

In 2007, Gary’s employer froze his pension benefits, but Gary did not file any action to seek modification. In 2016, Gary accepted an early retirement offer, causing him to retire at age 62 rather than the normal retirement age of 65.

Gary filed a petition for modification in February, 2017, claiming that the freezing of his benefits was a material change in circumstances that reduced his retirement benefits, and asked to eliminate the payment to Carolyn entirely. Perhaps recognizing that property division is unmodifiable (East v. East, 493 So.2d 927, 931 (Miss. 1986)), Gary argued at hearing that he was actually seeking relief from the divorce judgment pursuant to MRCP 60(b)(5) and (6). The chancellor granted Carolyn’s motion and dismissed Gary’s case. Gary appealed.

In Hall v. Hall, decided March 19, 2019, the COA affirmed.

¶13. Gary’s petition does not mention that it was filed under Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure 60(b)(5) and (6). However, during the hearing on August 2, 2017, as well as within his brief to this court, Gary argued that he is entitled to relief pursuant to Rules 60(b)(5) and (6) and he is also entitled to equitable relief. Since this issue was raised with the chancery court we will address the Rule 60(b) arguments made by Gary.

¶14. Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure 60(b)(5) and (6) provide:

(b) Mistakes; inadvertence; newly discovered evidence; fraud; etc. On motion and upon such terms as are just, the court may relieve a party or his legal
representative from a final judgment, order, or proceeding for the following reasons:

. . . .

(5) the judgment has been satisfied, released, or discharged, or a prior judgment otherwise vacated, or it is no longer equitable that the judgment should have prospective application;

(6) any other reason justifying relief from the judgment.

The motion shall be made within a reasonable time, and for reasons (1), (2) and (3) not more than six months after the judgment, order, or proceeding was entered or taken. . . .

The supreme court follows the following criteria for determining Rule 60(b) motions:

(1) That final judgments should not lightly be disturbed; (2) that the Rule 60(b) motion is not to be used as a substitute for appeal; (3) that the rule should be liberally construed in order to achieve substantial justice; (4) whether the motion was made within a reasonable time; (5) [relevant only to default judgments]; (6) whether if the judgment was rendered after a trial on the merits-the movant had a fair opportunity to present his claim or defense; (7) whether there are intervening equities that would make it inequitable to grant relief; and (8) any other factors relevant to the justice of the judgment under attack.

M.A.S. v. Miss. Dep’t of Human Servs., 842 So. 2d 527, 530 (¶16) (Miss. 2003). See also Carpenter v. Berry, 58 So. 3d 1158, 1159 (¶18) (Miss. 2011); M.R.C.P. 60(b), advisory
committee’s note.

¶15. Our court previously held in [In re Dissolution of Marriage of De St.] Germain[, 977 So.2d 412 (Miss. Ct. App. 2008)]  that a court did not err when dismissing a
motion brought under Rule 60(b) where the appellant waited five years to set aside a divorce judgment:

Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(5) [states that] “it is no longer equitable that the judgment should have prospective application”[], [and] the catch-all provision under Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(6) [provides for] “any other reason justifying relief from the judgment[.]”[] One who proceeds under either Rules 60(b)(5) or 60(b)(6) must do so “within a reasonable time.” M.R.C.P. 60(b). The chancellor did not specifically state that Brenda failed to file her motion “within a reasonable time,” but his ruling implies as much. We cannot find that the chancellor abused his discretion. Brenda filed her motion approximately five years after the chancellor entered the divorce judgment. The allegations raised within Brenda’s motion could have been submitted much earlier than five years after the judgment of divorce. Accordingly, we affirm the chancellor’s decision to grant Robert’s motion to dismiss.

Germain, 977 So. 2d at 416 (¶10).

¶16. Rule 60(b) reads in pertinent part that relief must be sought “within a reasonable time.” Additionally, the supreme court has held “Rule 60(b) provides for extraordinary relief which may be granted only upon an adequate showing of exceptional circumstances . . . .” Entergy Miss. Inc. v. Richardson, 134 So. 3d 287, 291 (¶10) (Miss. 2014). Here, Gary has not demonstrated any exceptional circumstances.

¶17. Further, Rule 60(b) motions are not to be used as a substitute for appeal. M.A.S., 842 So. 2d at 530 (¶16). Gary never appealed the original judgment of divorce or its retirement provisions. However, Gary has now filed a petition approximately ten years later challenging the retirement provisions of the divorce judgment. Moreover, during the hearing on August 2, 2017, Gary testified that his employer, Standex International Corporation, notified him that his retirement plan was frozen in 2007 and at least twice a year thereafter [Fn omitted] … [here the court quoted excerpts from the trial transcript in which Gary essentially admitted that he could have filed a court action much earlier than he did].

¶18. Gary’s petition could and should have been submitted much earlier than ten years after the memorandum opinion and divorce judgment. Gary knew or should have known in 2007 that his retirement plan was frozen in 2007 and that his retirement benefits would most likely not be $5,200 per month as projected. Gary failed to timely file his petition under Rule 60. In view of that, we affirm the court’s decision to dismiss Gary’s petition.

This case highlights the difficult position that litigants find themselves in when the assumptions upon which the equitable division change or prove to be untrue. If you’re negotiating how to divide your client’s retirement, it would be better to cast it as alimony, which is modifiable. If that doesn’t fly, try to negotiate a percentage rather than a fixed sum. If the case is being adjudicated, be sure to develop your client’s position that any such award should be alimony, and why, and that any award should be as a percentage.

Whatever strategy you employ to minimize risk to your client (and you), it’s important to keep in mind that these retirement provisions are ticking away in your client’s life, far beyond the time limit to appeal, and remember: property division is not modifiable.

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§ One Response to The Retirement Time-Bomb

  • Scott Clark says:

    This is an interesting case that unfortunately exhalts form over substance. Until the movant actually retired, he didn’t know the exact amount of his monthly benefit. His actual retirement should be the operative date for determining timeliness. All the prior notifications from his employer about “freezing” pension benefits appear meaningless; until he actually retired, it was unknown whether he would take an early retirement offer or retire at normal age. The standard should be whether he filed within a reasonable time after he actually retired (which is the date when the amount of his benefit became firmly established). I would find the motion timely. Also, labels can’t change the facts: the assumptions used in the divorce are wrong due to his earlier retirement and company actions. It should not be determinative that it’s called “property division” vs “alimony.” The essence of “equity” is seeing through form and being able to fashion relief based on substance. Of course, as our author notes, the simplest answer would have been to define the spouse’s entitlement as a specific percentage of pension benefits and not as a set dollar amount.

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