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Groh v. Groh

August 29, 1995

HENRY G. GROH, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THERESA P. GROH, DEFENDANT.



Parker, J.s.c.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Parker

CIVIL ACTION

Parker, J.S.C.

This matter comes before the court on defendant's motion to dismiss the divorce complaint after plaintiff's death and release plaintiff's pension death benefits to her. Plaintiff's estate objects and seeks to have the court create an exception under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et seq., to equitably distribute plaintiff's death benefits between defendant and the estate.

After considering the arguments, this court holds that ERISA mandates the death benefits be paid to defendant. There is no legal or equitable basis under which any portion of the death benefits can be awarded to plaintiff's estate. The divorce complaint is dismissed.

FACTS

The material facts are undisputed. The deceased plaintiff, Henry Groh, and defendant, Theresa were married on March 1, 1973. At that time, Henry was 62 years old and Theresa was 45. Each had one child from a prior marriage. Henry retired on September 12, 1977, four years after the parties married.

The parties continued to reside together until March 20, 1993, when Theresa moved to Arizona. Apparently, both parties intended to move to Arizona because they jointly purchased a large home there along with Theresa's daughter, Michelle. Henry never moved from New Jersey, however, and in March 1993, he relinquished his interest in the Arizona home to Theresa and her daughter without consideration.

On August 12, 1993, Theresa filed a complaint for divorce in Arizona, alleging irreconcilable differences. Theresa's daughter, Michelle, is an attorney in Arizona and represented her mother in that action. Henry appeared in the Arizona action to contest jurisdiction. On May 10, 1994, the parties joined in a stipulation of dismissal of the Arizona complaint.

On May 3, 1994, Henry filed a divorce complaint in New Jersey, alleging desertion. On or about September 20, 1994, Henry moved for expedited discovery and an early trial date because of his age and ill health. On November 16, 1994, Henry filed an amended notice of motion seeking to sequester his pension benefits if he should die during the pendency of the divorce. He also sought leave to video tape his own deposition. Henry's request to sequester the pension benefits was denied. The court did, however, set an expedited discovery schedule and granted Henry the right to preserve his testimony by way of video taped deposition. Unfortunately, Henry died on January 8, 1995, prior to the deposition.

On February 3, 1995, Henry's only son, Hank, filed an order to show cause and complaint in the Probate Part seeking to admit a holographic will, with Hank as executor and sole heir. Simultaneously, Hank moved in the Family Part to sequester his father's pension death benefits pending a determination of whether the benefits were a part of the matrimonial estate and subject to equitable distribution. That application was granted.

On April 17, 1995, Theresa filed a petition for removal of the action to federal court. The petition was denied by the Honorable Alfred J. Lechner, U.S.D.J., who found the notice of removal untimely. Groh v. Groh, 889 F. Supp. 166 (D.N.J. 1995). Judge Lechner also noted that the State Court is a court of competent jurisdiction to determine the enforcement of Theresa's right to recover benefits under ERISA. On August 4, 1995, the Honorable Gerald B. Hanifan signed an order issuing letters testamentary to Hank as the executor of Henry's holographic will. On August 7, 1995, Theresa renewed her motion for dismissal of the complaint and release of the pension death benefits to her. The motion was argued on August 18, 1995.

Discussion

The estate contends that the pension death benefits are marital assets for which a constructive trust should be established pursuant to Carr v. Carr, 120 N.J. 336, 576 A.2d 872 (1990), to preserve a portion of the pension death benefits for distribution to the estate. The estate argues that had Henry survived until entry of the judgment, Theresa would be entitled to share only in the portion of the pension earned during the marriage. Since all but four years of the pension was earned ...


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