R. Skelton v K. Skelton

Decision Date18 November 1999
Docket Number99-152
Citation5 S.W.3d 2
PartiesRoy Allen SKELTON v. Kathy Diane SKELTON 99-152 Opinion delivered
CourtArkansas Supreme Court

Appeal from Washington Chancery Court; John Lineberger, Chancellor; affirmed.

1. Divorce -- retirement benefits -- treated as marital property. -- Retirement benefits earned during marriage are considered marital property.

2. Divorce -- marital property -- social security benefits excluded from definition of. -- Congress has excluded from its definition of marital property any benefits from social security; 42 U.S.C. §407(a)(1994) imposes a broad bar against the use of any legal process to reach social security benefits; any attempt to make future assignment of one spouse's social security benefits is preempted by the provisions of 42 U.S.C. § 407(a).

3. Husband & wife -- social security benefits -- discussed. -- Congress may alter, and even eliminate, social security benefits at any time; this vulnerability to congressional edict contrasts strongly with the protection Congress has afforded recipients from creditors, tax gatherers, and all those who would "anticipate" the receipt of benefits; social security benefits are a type of public welfare, or social insurance and provide revenue or income; however, social security is not contractual in nature and does not become a property interest; it is subject to change by congressional act at any time.

4. Husband & wife -- private pension plans -- contractual. -- Most private pension plans are contractual agreements between the employer and employee; they become a property interest.

5. Husband & wife -- pension not designed to replace noncontractual social security benefits -- trial court affirmed. -- The contributions to appellant's pension plan were made during the marriage and became a property interest during the marriage; appellant's pension was not designed to replace noncontractual social security benefits; rather, it provided a pension benefit that exceeded that of the social security system, and appellant contributed indirectly to his pension plan by foregoing compensation that he would have otherwise received during marriage; because the purposes of social security and the retirement plan were fundamentally different, they were not interchangeable; therefore, the trial court's inclusion of appellant's fireman's pension as marital property was affirmed.

6. Statutes -- challenge to -- validity upheld where constitutional construction possible. -- Where a constitutional construction is possible, the supreme court is compelled to uphold the validity of the statute under attack.

7. Divorce -- division-of-property statute -- not violative of Equal Protection Clause. -- Arkansas Code Annotated § 9-12-315 (Repl. 1998), which deals with the divsion of marital property, does not violate the Equal Protection Clause, either facially or as applied; there was a rational basis behind the General Assembly's handling of the class of spouses disputing the division of property; similarly, Ark. Code Ann. § 9-12-315 is not violative of the Equal Protection Clause.

8. Constitutional law -- equal protection challenge to statute --rational-basis test applicable. -- Under the rational-basis test for an equal protection challenge to a statute, the burden of proving the unconstitutionality of the statute was on appellant; he had the burden of proving that the act was not rationally related to achieving any legitimate objective of state government under any reasonably conceivable state of facts.

9. Constitutional law -- violation of equal protection clause --factors considered. -- In determining whether a statute violates equal protection principles, the supreme court considers several factors: (1) the character of the classification; (2) the individual interests asserted in support of the classification; and (3) the governmental interests asserted in support of the classification; the Equal Protection Clause does not preclude all statutory classifications; statutory classifications that have a rational basis and are reasonably related to the purpose of the statute are permissible.

10. Constitutional law -- equal protection principles -- pension plan mischaracterized. -- On the first and second factors, appellant mischaracterized his pension plan as a replacement for social security; social security benefits are based upon computations that consider age, retirement status, including the amount of outside income, adjusted for cost-of-living increases, and many other factors; appellant's pension provided for payment of fifty percent of his regular salary plus $20 per month for each year served beyond the twentieth year of service; he was not deprived of two-thirds of his retirement pay; accordingly, he was not disadvantaged, either individually or as a member of a class.

11. Constitutional law -- validity of statute -- considerations. -- It is not the role of the supreme court to discover the actual basis for legislation; it merely considers whether any rational basis exists that demonstrates the possibility of a deliberate nexus with state objectives, so that the legislation is not the product of utterly arbitrary and capricious government purpose and void of any hint of deliberate and lawful purpose.

12. Constitutional law -- division-of-property statute --rationally related to several legitimate governmental purposes. -- Arkansas Code Annotated § 9-12-315 is rationally related to several legitimate governmental purposes, one of which is to give marriage partners an equal share of pension benefits earned during the marriage; the statute recognizes that money earned during the marriage belongs to the partnership; it also recognizes that both spouses have contributed to the pension plan during the marriage and balances the distribution accordingly; there is a rational basis for the statutory determination that pension rights acquired during marriage should be treated as marital property; with regard to the allowance of child support, this benefit reflects a responsibility for the support of the minor children, and will end when they become adults; there is a rational basis for this treatment; accordingly, Ark. Code Ann. § 9-12-315 and the Administrative Order did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

13. Husband & wife -- personal-injury claim -- when exempted from marital property. -- There is a two-prong test to determine whether a claim of a "personal injury" as contemplated by Ark. Code Ann. § 9-12-315(b)(6) satisfies the requirement for an exemption from marital property; first, the claim must be for a degree of permanent disability or future medical expenses; second, the injury must be sustained while on the job or in consequence of a tortious act.

14. Husband & wife -- appellant had job-related disability --disability benefits not marital property. -- Where appellant suffered from an anxiety disorder, and some eight years after the disability was adjudicated he continued to be compensated for it, his continued compensation reflected that he still suffered a degree of permanent disability; where there was no dispute that the disability was job-related, there was no reversible error in the chancellor's determination that these disability benefits are not marital property; the decision of the trial court was affirmed.

Pettus Law Firm, by: Donna C. Pettus and E. Lamar Pettus, for appellant.

Smith Law Firm, by: Donna Hayden Lyles, for appellee.

Ray Thornton, Justice.

This appeal arises out of a divorce action and involves the distribution of a pension plan and disability benefits as marital property. Appellant raises three points on appeal. First, he argues that the trial court erred in including his fireman's pension as marital property for distribution purposes. Second, he argues that Ark. Code Ann. § 9-12-315 (Repl. 1998), either by itself or in combination with Administrative Order No. 10: Arkansas Child Support Guidelines, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Third, he argues that the chancellor did not err in exempting his disability benefits from marital property. We affirm the trial court.

Roy Skelton and Kathy Skelton were married on September 6,1974. At the time of the marriage, Mr. Skelton had been working for the Fayetteville Fire Department for approximately eight years. Ms. Skelton filed for divorce on May 5, 1998. The divorce hearing was held on October 14, 1998. The parties had settled all issues except the division of Mr. Skelton's fireman's pension.

The Fireman's Relief and Pension Fund is a retirement program established under Ark. Code Ann. § 24-11-101 (Repl. 1996), and allowed by federal law. Under the rules of the pension fund, Mr. Skelton was prohibited from making contributions to or paying taxes for social security based upon his employment by the city. Although Mr. Skelton is ineligible for social security benefits, he is covered under the Fayetteville Firefighters Pension Fund.

Mr. Skelton retired from the fire department after twenty-three years and four months of service. At the time of his retirement, a fireman could retire at fifty percent of his regular salary plus twenty dollars per month for each year served beyond the twentieth year of service. If retirement resulted from a disability, the disability benefit was an additional fifteen percent of the fireman's regular salary. In January 1990, Mr. Skelton was awarded regular retirement benefits in the gross amount of $1,264.63 per month. The City of Fayetteville contested Mr. Skelton's entitlement to disability retirement, and on January 31, 1991, the circuit court of Washington County found that Mr. Skelton was entitled to continue to receive disability benefits as a result of a service-related, line-of-duty disability resulting from an anxiety disorder. Since February 15, 1990, Mr. Skelton has received $1,264.63 in regular retirement and $361.38 in disability retirement for a total monthly benefit of...

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2 books & journal articles
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    • United States
    • Full Court Press Divorce, Separation and the Distribution of Property Title CHAPTER 8 Miscellaneous Property Interests
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