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Court News Ohio

Error in Modifying Divorce Decree Does Not Make Pension-Division Order Void

When a domestic relations court improperly orders pension benefits to be divided in a way that is contrary to a prior divorce decree, that error does not make the court’s order void and unenforceable, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

The Supreme Court reversed an Eleventh District Court of Appeals decision, which had ruled that an order that improperly modified a divorce decree rendered that order void and correctable at any time a party seeks to contest it.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy stated that R.C. 3105.171(I) does not allow a court to divide retirement benefits in a way that modifies the divorce decree without the consent of both former spouses.

The Court explained that the Lake County Domestic Relations Court had the judicial power to modify the pension benefit granted to Julia Ostanek in the divorce decree. That the domestic relations court failed to comply with R.C. 3105.171(I), however, did not make the order void and not legally binding on the parties. In remanding the matter, the Court directed the Eleventh District to consider Gregory Ostanek’s argument that the failure of his ex-wife to notify him of her request for an order dividing the retirement benefits violated his due process rights and should invalidate the order.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Patrick F. Fischer, R. Patrick DeWine, Melody J. Stewart, and Jennifer Brunner joined Justice Kennedy’s opinion. Justice Michael P. Donnelly concurred in judgment only.

Divorcing Couple Sells Home, Splits Federal Pension
Julia and Gregory Ostanek’s 23-year marriage ended in a 2001 divorce. As part of the divorce decree, the couple agreed that Gregory’s pension with the Federal Employees Retirement System would be divided “50/50.” The Lake County Domestic Relations Court reserved jurisdiction over the matter to issue a QDRO, a qualified domestic-relations order, to divide the pension. The divorce decree did not specify the method to be used to calculate Julia’s marital share of the pension, nor did it provide for her to receive a “survivor benefit,” which for an additional cost would provide Julia pension payments after Gregory’s death.

The couple’s marital home was in Madison, Ohio. Gregory moved out during the divorce and provided the court clerk with his mother’s home address in Wickliffe, Ohio, as the address to send the court’s divorce decree, because Gregory was relocating to Washington, D.C. As required by the divorce decree, the couple sold the Madison home and split the proceeds.

Nearly 12 years after the divorce, Gregory approached his retirement date. Federal law requires that a former spouse seeking eligibility to collect a portion of a federal employee’s pension must submit a “certified copy of a court order acceptable for processing,” which is known as a “COAP,” to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). The OPM must honor the clear instructions of the court, but the OPM is not obligated to supply missing provisions, interpret ambiguous language, or clarify a state court’s intent.

In January 2013, Julia’s attorney submitted to the domestic relations court a proposed COAP prepared by a consulting firm called the QDRO Group. The order submitted to the court was not signed by Gregory, but it indicated that it had been “served per attached.” The certificate of service stated the order was mailed by Julia’s attorney to Gregory at the former marital home in Madison.  

Pension Divided, Ex-Husband Not Notified
The Ohio Rules of Civil Procedure required Julia’s attorney to serve court papers in the proceeding on Gregory’s attorney or on Gregory if he was not represented by a lawyer. The rules require the mail to be sent to the person’s last known address, or the attorney can leave the court papers with the court clerk if the person has no known address. Julia’s lawyer did not comply with any of those provisions.

The attorney told the Supreme Court that he sent the proposed COAP to the marital home because that was the address listed for Gregory in the domestic relations court docket 12 years earlier. A copy of the divorce decree in the attorney’s possession listed Gregory’s address as his mother’s home in Wickliffe and noted the marital home was ordered to be sold.

The domestic relations court adopted the COAP and directed the OPM to pay Julia 50 percent of the martial portion of Gregory’s monthly benefit. Julia’s portion was calculated using a “coverture method,” which an expert with the QDRO Group noted was the default method OPM used for dividing federal employee pensions. The COAP also included a survivor benefit and ordered Gregory and Julia to share its cost equally. The expert indicated that a survivor benefit is not provided if the COAP does not include one, but if included, the OPM provides for the cost to be shared equally by default.

The domestic relations court did not direct the clerk to serve the approved order on Gregory, and the court’s docket did not indicate he was sent a copy.

Husband Surprised by Pension Division
Gregory retired in 2013 and received a booklet from the OPM indicting that Julia was receiving $2,065 a month, about 45 percent of his monthly retirement benefit. He contacted OPM several times that year, arguing that the calculation was wrong , but he was unsuccessful in changing the apportionment of his retirement benefit.

Five years later in 2018, Gregory filed a motion with the domestic relations court to vacate the COAP. While the request was pending, he contacted his representative in Congress, who inquired into the matter. The OPM determined it had overpaid Julia, paid Gregory about $58,400, and began recouping payment from Julia by lowering her benefit. OPM then required Gregory to pay a little over $18,500 for cost of the survivor benefit between 2013 and 2018 and required Gregory and Julia to split the cost going forward.

At the hearing contesting the COAP, Gregory argued that he was not notified of the proposed order and that it did not reflect the agreement of the parties. He argued that the COAP should have used the “frozen” method for calculating Julia’s portion of the pension. He estimated that this method would reduce her payments to about $723 per month. Gregory also maintained that he did not agree to a survivor benefit.

The court denied Gregory’s motion, finding he failed to file it in a reasonable time and that the COAP had not improperly modified the divorce decree.

Husband Appeals Decision
Gregory appealed the decision to the Eleventh District, arguing that the domestic relations court violated R.C. 3105.171(I) by enlarging Julia’s share of the pension beyond what was contemplated in the divorce decree. He argued that because the court violated the law, the COAP was void and he was entitled to challenge it at any time.

The Eleventh District concluded that the trial court’s use of the coverture method in the COAP did not modify the divorce decree. However, the appellate court ruled that providing the survivor benefit in the COAP was an enlargement of the divorce decree’s division of property and made that part of the COAP void.

Julia appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Supreme Court Analyzes Jurisdiction of Domestic Relations Court
Citing U.S. and Ohio Supreme Court decisions, Justice Kennedy wrote that the word “jurisdiction,” set apart by itself, “is a vague term” and “a word of many, too many, meanings.” The unspecified use of the word can lead to confusion and has repeatedly required the Ohio Supreme Court to clarify which type of “jurisdiction” is applicable to the controversy at hand, the opinion stated.

In this case, the parties disputed the limits of the domestic relations court’s “subject-matter jurisdiction.” The opinion noted that a court has subject-matter jurisdiction when, through the constitution or a statute, it has the power to adjudicate a particular type of case. When a court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, any order issued by the court is void, the opinion explained.

The General Assembly granted common pleas courts, and domestic relations divisions of common pleas courts, subject-matter jurisdiction over divorce actions and the division of martial property, the Court stated. The legislature also can explicitly remove jurisdiction from common pleas courts by statute, the opinion noted, using the example that the General Assembly has given the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio exclusive jurisdiction over most matters related to public utilities. Nothing in R.C. 3105.171(I), however, explicitly removes the domestic relations courts’ subject-matter jurisdiction over the division of marital property, the opinion noted.

The opinion acknowledged that the Court’s 2019 Walsh v. Walsh decision indicated that a domestic relations court lacks “jurisdiction” to modify a divorce decree without the consent of both parties. The Court had also suggested in other cases that a failure to comply with a statute like R.C. 3105.171(I) would exceed a court’s jurisdiction.

Justice Kennedy explained the Ohio Supreme Court has “more recently refined our understanding of the difference of a trial court’s lacking subject-matter jurisdiction over a particular type of case and a court’s errant exercise of its jurisdiction in failing to comply with a statutory requirement.”

Because the law gives domestic relations courts subject-matter jurisdiction and R.C. 3105.171(I) does not take it away, an error in modifying a divorce decree in violation of the statute does not extinguish the court’s power to adjudicate the matter. For this reason, “even though the COAP improperly modified the divorce decree and was unauthorized by law, that error did not render the COAP void ab initio for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction,”, the Court concluded.

2020-1037. Ostanek v. Ostanek, Slip Opinion No. 2021-Ohio-2319.

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