Mahoney v. Mahoney

Citation425 Mass. 441,681 N.E.2d 852
PartiesDaniel F. MAHONEY v. Karen J. MAHONEY.
Decision Date14 July 1997
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts

John O. Mirick, Worcester, for defendant.

James E. O'Connell, Jr., for plaintiff.


MARSHALL, Justice.

Karen J. Mahoney (wife) appealed from a judgment of divorce issued by a Probate and Family Court judge on March 15, 1994. She claims that the judge did not include as a marital asset, as he should have, the value of anticipated Social Security old age benefits of her husband, Daniel F. Mahoney (husband), for the purpose of dividing the marital estate pursuant to G.L. c. 208, § 34. She also argues that the judge overlooked other assets that should have been, but were not, included in the marital assets, and overstated certain debt assumed by her husband. We transferred the case to this court on our own motion. We affirm the judgment in part, reverse in part, and remand the case to the Probate Court for entry of an amended judgment consistent with this opinion.

1. In December, 1991, the husband filed a complaint for divorce in the Worcester Division of the Probate and Family Court Department. The trial commenced on June 1, 1993, and on December 14, 1993, the judge granted a judgment of divorce nisi, which was made absolute on March 15, 1994. The wife filed a notice of appeal dated January 12, 1994, with respect to certain portions of the judgment that applied to the division of marital property. On December 28, 1995, the judge issued his "findings of facts and rationale of judgment."

The judge included future payments from the wife's retirement plan as a part of the divisible marital estate; her retirement plan contributions had accrued during the course of the marriage. 1 He found that the wife's contributions to her retirement plan totalled approximately $32,000, and that she was eligible for retirement after September 4, 1993, on completion of twenty years of service. The judge found that the then present value of the wife's future retirement plan benefits, at the age of sixty, was $83,000. 2

The judge found that the husband would be entitled to receive Social Security old age benefits, 3 but concluded that, under Federal law, such benefits are not a divisible marital asset. The judge nevertheless concluded that, in order to provide for an equitable division of the marital estate, "the award of a larger overall percentage of the estate to the Wife was necessary to equalize the standard of living both parties will enjoy in the present and future." After evaluating the total marital estate at $311,833, the judge awarded $169,698 of the net marital assets (58%) to the wife and $122,135 (42%) to the husband.

The wife argues that the judge erred by failing to offset the husband's future interest in Social Security old age benefits against her future retirement plan benefits. We disagree. As to inclusion of the wife's future retirement plan benefits in the marital assets, G.L. c. 208, § 34, confers broad discretion on a judge to make an equitable property division in connection with a divorce. Early v. Early, 413 Mass. 720, 727, 604 N.E.2d 17 (1992), and cases cited. The statute provides that, when dividing the marital estate, a judge may include as part of the marital estate any vested and nonvested retirement (including pension) benefits of either spouse. G.L. c. 208, § 34. See id. at 723, 604 N.E.2d 17; Moriarty v. Stone, 41 Mass.App.Ct. 151, 156, 668 N.E.2d 1338 (1996) (retirement benefits accrued before marriage may be included as marital assets); Johnson v. Johnson, 22 Mass.App.Ct. 955, 956, 494 N.E.2d 423 (1986). It was proper for the judge to include the wife's future retirement plan benefits as a marital asset.

As to any Social Security old age benefits that the husband anticipates, the judge was correct to conclude that Federal law prohibits such benefits from being included as an asset in the marital estate. Title 42 U.S.C. § 407(a) (1994) provides that "[t]he right of any person to any future payment ... shall not be transferable or assignable, at law or in equity, and none of the moneys paid or payable or rights existing ... shall be subject to execution, levy, attachment garnishment, or other legal process...." While 42 U.S.C. § 659(a) permits the assignment of Social Security monies to pay for alimony and child support, 4 it explicitly excludes for the purposes of the statute "any payment or transfer of property or its value by an individual to his spouse or former spouse in compliance with any community property settlement, equitable distribution of property, or other division of property between spouses or former spouses." 42 U.S.C. § 659(i)(3)(B)(ii).

Because there is an important difference between pensions and Social Security benefits, it is appropriate for a judge to treat public or private pension funds differently from Social Security old age benefits for the purposes of marital property distribution. An employee who participates in a pension plan has an enforceable contractual right to receive future benefits from the plan. Social Security old age benefits, however, "are not deferred compensation for services rendered but rather a governmental safety net for the retired," and as such, "[t]he employee has no contractual right to such benefits." Cox v. Cox, 882 P.2d 909, 920 (Alaska 1994), S.C., 931 P.2d 1041 (Alaska 1997), citing Mann v. Mann, 778 P.2d 590, 592 (Alaska 1989). See Hisquierdo v. Hisquierdo, 439 U.S. 572, 575, 99 S.Ct. 802, 805, 59 L.Ed.2d 1 (1979) (observing that "[l]ike Social Security, and unlike most private pension plans, railroad retirement benefits are not contractual"). Anticipated Social Security old age benefits are indefinite because Congress may alter, amend, or repeal any provision of the Social Security Act at any time. 42 U.S.C. § 1304 (1994). See Flemming v. Nestor, 363 U.S. 603, 617, 80 S.Ct. 1367, 1376, 4 L.Ed.2d 1435 (1960) (Congress may deny "noncontractual governmental benefit").

The wife urges us to construe narrowly the Supreme Court's holding in Hisquierdo to apply only to benefits governed by the Federal Railroad Retirement Act, 45 U.S.C. §§ 231-231t. In particular, she focuses on the language of 45 U.S.C. § 231m that precludes the anticipation of retirement benefits 5; in contrast, she argues, the Social Security Act's antiassignment provision, 42 U.S.C. § 407, includes no language addressing "anticipated" benefits. Thus, she argues, a court may anticipate a spouse's future Social Security benefits and include them in the marital estate for equitable distribution. We disagree.

First, we observe that in Hisquierdo, the Supreme Court analogized the Railroad Retirement Act benefits at issue to those administered by the Social Security Administration, discussing the alimony and child support exceptions to the antiassignment rule, 42 U.S.C. § 659 (1994), and the exclusion of property distribution from these exceptions, 42 U.S.C. § 662. 6 Hisquierdo, supra at 587, 99 S.Ct. at 811. 7 In addition, we are reluctant to permit the inclusion of anticipated Social Security old age benefits as part of the marital estate because Congress has expressed an intent to preempt this entire area of law. The Social Security Act provides disability and old age benefits for divorced spouses (here the wife) on the basis of the spouse's Social Security insurance when the covered spouse (here the husband) begins collecting retirement or disability benefits, provided that the divorced person is at least sixty-two years old, 42 U.S.C. § 402(b)(1)(B) and (c)(1)(B); has not remarried, 42 U.S.C. § 402(b)(1)(C) and (c)(1)(C); and was married to the covered spouse for at least ten years before the divorce, 42 U.S.C. § 416(d)(1)-(2). 8 See C.P. Kindregan & M.L. Inker, Family Law and Practice, § 41.18, at 96 (2d ed.1996). In re the Marriage of Boyer, 538 N.W.2d 293, 295 (Iowa 1995); Matter of the Marriage of Swan, 301 Or. 167, 176-177, 720 P.2d 747 (1986). See also Richard v. Richard, 659 S.W.2d 746, 749 (Tex.Ct.App.1983) ("Additional reasoning indicating Congressional intent to preempt state community property is shown by the fact that Congress expressly provides in 42 U.S.C. § 402[b] for certain benefits for divorced spouses so that a divorced spouse would not have to depend upon a state's system of marital property law"). Decisions by State courts in this area that may differ in outcome would disrupt a uniform Federal scheme of benefits and would produce results that would vary from State to State. In re the Marriage of Kelley, 64 Cal.App.3d 82, 99, 134 Cal.Rptr. 259 (1976).

The wife relies on decisions from other jurisdictions in support of her argument. See, e.g., In re Marriage of Brane, 21 Kan.App.2d 778, 908 P.2d 625 (1995); Pongonis v. Pongonis, 606 A.2d 1055, 1058 (Me.1992); Matter of the Marriage of Knipp, 15 Kan.App.2d 494, 809 P.2d 562, 564 (1991); Rudden v. Rudden, 765 S.W.2d 719, 720 (Mo.Ct.App.1989). But each of those decisions affirms the majority view, which we join, that anticipated Social Security old age benefits may not be included as part of the marital estate. Those cases do hold, however, that a judge may consider a spouse's anticipated Social Security benefits as one factor, among others, in making an equitable distribution of the distributable marital assets. In this case the judge did precisely that; he considered the husband's anticipated Social Security old age benefits, and awarded the wife a larger percentage of the marital estate "to equalize the standard of living both parties will enjoy in the present and future." 9 We conclude that the judge acted correctly. There is no requirement as to precisely how a judge must consider anticipated Social Security benefits; based on the record in this case we conclude that the judge was not plainly wrong. Rice v. Rice, 372 Mass. 398, 402, 361 N.E.2d...

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