November 2017 : Court of Appeals (1) Approves Trial Court’s Award to W of Part of H’s Pension Accrued Before Marriage and (2) Rules It Is Not an Invasion of His Separate Property – Koch, Mich App No. 333020 (7/18/17)

Michigan Family Law Journal : TAX TRENDS AND DEVELOPMENTS Feature

by Joseph W. Cunningham, JD, CPA

Facts

  • H and W were separated in 2014, in part due to alleged multiple incidents of spousal abuse, and were subsequently divorced after 27 years of marriage.
  • At the time of divorce, H, 55, was receiving a pension of $51,880 annually while W, 54, was earning $15,058 at a parochial school district where she had worked for 22 years.
  • Part of H’s pension was accrued before the 1987 marriage.
  • H had health insurance as part of his retirement package while W did not have employer paid health insurance.
  • In view of (1) H’s fault for the breakdown of the marriage and (2) the disparate financial circumstances of the parties, the trial court awarded W 55% of H’s pension as spousal support.
  • H appealed, claiming that by awardingW 55% of his pension, the trial court inappropriately invaded his separate property.

Court of Appeals (COA/Court) Decision

  • The COA upheld the trial court decision and ruled that it did not invade H’s separate estate.
  • The COA stated the following regarding whether a trial court’s jurisdiction was limited to retirement plan contributions made during marriage:
[M CL 552.18(1)} does not expressly restrict the circuit court’s jurisdiction to pension contributions made within the confines of the marriage. Although that statutory provision
provides that pension contributions made during the marriage must be considered, it does not expressly provide that contributions made before the marriage may not be considered. That is, the language is inclusive and mandates what must be taken into account, but does not expressly exclude consideration of other contributions. [Boonstra, 209 Mich App at 562]
  • Further, the Court stated that the following rationale has been adopted regarding whether pension benefits accrued pre-marriage may be divided in divorce:

The major consideration is the security of the family and the court may utilize any property in the real and personal estate of either party to achieve suitable support for the family as the court considers just and reasonable after considering the ability of either party to pay and the character and the situation of the parties, and all the other circumstances of the case. [Booth, 194 Mich App 284,290(1992); Pickering, 268 Mich App 1,9(2005).

  • Thus, the COA decided that in light of the circumstances of the case,“it was ‘just and reasonable’ for the trial court to include in its considerations the portion of Defendant’s pension that had accrued before the marriage. Booth, 194 Mich App 291.”
  • Finally, the Court stated that because the trial court did not consider H’s pension accrued before marriage as his separate property, it did not have to consider the statutory exceptions (i.e., need or contribution) for invading a separate estate under MCL552.23.

Comments on the Case

  • Essentially, the COA ruled that when pre-marital retirement benefits are involved, a “just and reasonable” standard for providing “suitable support of the family” is the paramount consideration.
  • And, if awarded as spousal support, neither exception for invading separate property need be established to justify the award.
    Rather, ensuring the “suitable support of the family” takes precedence.
  • This seems to run counter to typical compliance with the Reeves mandate to first identify the (1) marital and (2) separate components of the parties’ various property interests.
  • What then is done in lock-step fashion is to treat the respective marital and separate property components of the total estate accordingly.
  • But, as we know, if one party establishes “need” under MCL552.23, the other’s separate property may be invaded to suitably provide for the need.
  • What the unpublished Koch decision indicates is that when a pre-marital retirement benefit is involved and need is established, paying it as spousal support vs. an invasion of separate property is an option.
  • This seems somewhat at odds with the 1997 Reeves decision mandate. However, if “need” is established, the substantive result is similar either way – that is, use of pre-marital retirement benefits to satisfy the need.

Food for Thought

  • “Need” sometimes consists of inadequate retirement security coupled with the lack of ability and/or time post-divorce to establish sufficient funds for support in retirement years.
  • In such a case, if the other party has a 401(k) or qualified plan savings account which includes a pre-marital component, the, “suitable support of the family” standard might justify use of one party’s pre-marital retirement account to provide for the other’s suitable support in retirement years.

About the Author

Joe Cunningham has over 25 years of experience specializing in financial and tax aspects of divorce, including business valuation, valuing and dividing retirement benefits, and developing settlement proposals. He has lectured extensively for ICLE, the Family Law Section, and the MACPA. Joe is also the author of numerous journal articles and chapters in family law treatises. His office is in Troy, though his practice is statewide.

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Download the PDF file below… “Court of Appeals (1) Approves Trial Court’s Award to W of Part of H’s Pension Accrued Before Marriage and (2) Rules It Is Not an Invasion of His Separate Property – Koch, Mich App No. 333020 (7/18/17)”
View / Download November 2017 Article – PDF File

Complete Michigan Family Law Journal available at: Michigan Bar website – Family Law Section (subscription required)

Aug / Sept 2017 : In a Published Case, Court of Appeals Approves Entry of QDRO 12 Years Post Date of Divorce–JOUGHIN, No. 329993 (7/11/2017)

Michigan Family Law Journal : TAX TRENDS AND DEVELOPMENTS Feature

by Joseph W. Cunningham, JD, CPA

Facts

  • H and W were divorced on April 28, 2003.
  • The Judgment of Divorce (JOD) awarded W (1) 50% of H’s pension accrued as of April 30, 2002 and (2) $23,823 from his profit-sharing plan account.
  • The JOD provided that both parties “shall cooperate” in obtaining and processing the QDROs necessary to effectuate the transfers to W.
  • For reasons not apparent on the record, the QDROs were not promptly filed. Instead, W submitted the QDROs for entry with the trial court on June 30, 2015- more than 12 years post-divorce.
  • H objected claiming that W’s submission of the QDROs for entry was an attempt to enforce the 2003 JOD and, hence, was time-barred under MCL 600.5809(3), which provides a 10-year statute of limitations applicable to attempts to enforce a noncontractual money obligation.
  • W responded that because her claim did not arise until H reached retirement age, that the statute had not yet begun to run.
  • Because H had not retired nor received any of his retirement benefits, the trial court entered the QDROs.
  • H appealed.

Court of Appeals Decision

  • The Court disagreed with the parties’ position that MCL 600.5809 applied to entry of a QDRO.
  • Rather, the Court cited a previous decision that “when a judgment of divorce requires a QDRO to be entered, the QDRO is to be considered as part of the divorce judgment.”
  • Accordingly, the Court stated that “because the QDRO is part of the judgment, it necessarily cannot be viewed as enforcing the same judgment.” *** “Instead, we hold that under these circumstances, the act to obtain entry of a proposed QDRO is a ministerial task done in conjunction with the divorce judgment itself.”
  • Thus, the Court concluded that entry of the QDROs was not time-barred
  • Judge Kathleen Jansen wrote a vigorous dissent claiming, for various reasons, that entry of the QDRO after 10 years was barred by the statute of limitations.

Comments on the Case

  • Obviously, the case is a “poster child” for the importance of preparing and processing QDROs promptly – either contemporaneous with entry of the divorce judgment or soon thereafter.
  • Based on many years’ experience of preparing QDROs for legal aid clients under a pro bono program administered by the State Bar, QDROs unfiled for years following divorce are not uncommon. This case – a rare family law published case – indicates that the passage of 10 years or more does not bar entry of a QDRO.
  • However, in Joughin, the participant had not begun to receive benefits. Had he done so, or remarried, or died, the situation would likely have been much more problematic for the alternate payee.
  • And, the Joughin judgment provision reprinted in the Court’s opinion did not provide that W’s share of H’s profit-sharing plan account would be adjusted proportionately for gains or losses of plan investments. With the sharp advance of the stock market from 2003 through 2015, W paid a high price for not timely attending to the QDROs.
  • In this regard, there is no precedent regarding whether the right to receive a proportional share of plan gains and losses passes automatically under state law with the transfer via QDRO of an interest in an account balance plan such as a 401(k) or profit-sharing plan as in Joughin.
  • Unless transferring a set dollar amount, it is highly advisable to include such a provision in both the JOD and the QDRO.

About the Author

Joe Cunningham has over 25 years of experience specializing in financial and tax aspects of divorce, including business valuation, valuing and dividing retirement benefits, and developing settlement proposals. He has lectured extensively for ICLE, the Family Law Section, and the MACPA. Joe is also the author of numerous journal articles and chapters in family law treatises. His office is in Troy, though his practice is statewide.

Download PDF file below… “In a Published Case, Court of Appeals Approves Entry of QDRO 12 Years Post Date of Divorce–JOUGHIN, No. 329993 (7/11/2017)”
View / Download Aug-Sept 2017 Article – PDF File

Complete Michigan Family Law Journal available at: Michigan Bar website – Family Law Section (subscription required)

May 2015 : Overview of the Division of Retirement Benefits in Divorce – Part 2

Michigan Family Law Journal : TAX TRENDS AND DEVELOPMENTS Feature

by Joseph W. Cunningham, JD, CPA

Excerpt:

The following is a continuation of the materials presented in the March 2015 Tax Trends column.

III. Defined Contribution (DC) Plans

  1. A DC plan–such as a 401(k) plan – provides for separate account for each participant.
    1. E.g.–W’s account balance under the XYZ 401(k) plan was $50,000 on December 31, 2014.
    2. Other types of DC plans include pro t-sharing plans, money purchase pension plans, and 403(b) annuities.
  2. Division of DC plan accounts is also accomplished either by the o set method or by deferred division using a QDRO/EDRO.
  3. Offset method – Valuation
    1. The present value of the DC plan interest is generally considered its account balance as of the valuation date. See above for an example.
    2. As with the present value of pensions under DB plans, it is typically appropriate to tax affect the value of the account balance.
    3. It is important to specify a valuation date, generally close to when other assets will be divided.
    4. If there is a plan loan, the account is (1) valued net of the loan and (2) responsibility to repay the loan is assigned to the participant.
      Example:

      • The total pre-tax value of W’s 401(k) account is $50,000 – $40,000 of plan investments and (2) a $10,000 loan she drew from the plan.
      • Equal division under the offset method:
        (Table shown in PDF)
  4. Deferred division method – QDROs/EDROs

Continued in PDF file below… “Overview of the Division of Retirement Benefits in Divorce – Part 2”
View / Download May 2015 Article – PDF File

Complete Michigan Family Law Journal available at: Michigan Bar website – Family Law Section

March 2015 : Overview of the Division of Retirement Benefits in Divorce – Part 1

Michigan Family Law Journal : TAX TRENDS AND DEVELOPMENTS Feature

by Joseph W. Cunningham, JD, CPA

Excerpt:

Introduction

  1. Under Michigan law, every judgment of divorce (JOD) must provide for the rights of the parties to both vested and unvested pensions, annuities, and retirement benefits. MCL 552.101(4)
    1. Vested benefits must be taken into account in property settlements. MCL 552.18.
    2. Unvested benefits may be considered “where just and equitable.” MCL 552.18
  2. Age of specialization
    1. Certainly applicable to handling retirement benefits in divorce.
    2. Many traps for the unwary
  3. As with taxation, the key is awareness of issues
    1. Obtain necessary knowledge or assistance
    2. Better serves clients and avoids unpleasant surprises down the road

Defined Benefit (DB) Plans

  1. DB Plans – Traditional pensions – Monthly payment for life often based on (1) final average compensation, (2) years of service, and (3) plan formula.
    1. E.g., $3,500 a month for life.
    2. Many units of government and large employers – such as the “Big 3 Automakers” – have DB plans.
    3. But, the trend is definitely to defined contribution (DC) – or, “account balance” plans, such as 401(k) plans.
  2. Division of interests in DB plans is achieved via (1) offset method or (2) deferred division.
    1. Offset method involves (1) determining the present value of the pension and (2) awarding the other party property equal value. E.g., The after-tax, present value of W’s pension is $50,000. H shall receive $50,000 of other property as an offset.
    2. Deferred division refers to actually splitting the marital portion of the pension between the parties pursuant to a Qualified Domestic Relations Order. E.g., H and W will equally share his $4,000/month pension by means of assignment of half of his share to W pursuant to a QDRO.
  3. Offset method – Valuation
    1. Many professionals calculate the present value of a pension by using the discount rates published and updated monthly by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).
      1. The PBGC, a federal government agency, uses the rates for the same purpose–that is, to determine the present value of future pension payments.
      2. The updated monthly rates can be accessed at the PBGC website (www.pbgc.gov) by clicking on “Practitioners.”
    2. Generally, it is appropriate to reduce the present value of the pension by the tax rate to which it will be subject when it becomes payable after retirement.
      1. Rationale – The pension cannot be used in any beneficial way until received, at which time it is taxable.
      2. The federal and state tax rates used to “tax affect” retirement benefits are those projected to apply after retirement.
      3. Because of the certainty of taxation, case law supports valuing retirement interests net of future tax. Nalevayko v Nalevayko, 198 Mich App 163, 497 NW2d 533 (1993)
    3. In some cases, there may not be sufficient other property suitable to award the other party as an offset.
  4. Deferred division method – QDROs/EDROs
    ……
Continued in PDF file below… “Overview of the Division of Retirement Benefits in Divorce – Part 1”
View / Download March 2015 Article – PDF File

Complete Michigan Family Law Journal available at: Michigan Bar website – Family Law Section