Judge Accepts WA State QDRO as ERISA Valid

January 26, 2007 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - Because a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) allowing a participant's common-law wife a portion of his pension is valid under state law, it is also valid under federal law, a judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Thomas S. Zilly of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington decided that the key issue in the case involving   Philip and Norma Owens was that the state of Washington recognizes quasi-marital relationships for the purposes of dividing up marital property,.

Zilly turned away arguments by the pension plan that because the couple was never legally married, the state QDRO did not relate to marital property rights recognizable by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

Philip and Norma Owens were never legally married but lived together in a quasi-marital relationship for more than 30 years, had two children together, and held themselves out to the community as married, according to the court.

When the pair separated, Norma Owens went into court to get a distribution of their assets. A state court issued a QDRO which, among other things, granted Norma Owens half of the pension payments that Philip Owens was receiving. The plan refused to make the payments to Norma Owens, saying the QDRO was not valid under ERISA because the couple had never been legally married.

The court also found that Norma Owens was an “alternate payee” under ERISA because she was a dependent of Philip Owens. In making that determination, Zilly noted that Norma Owens was dependent on Philip Owens for financial support for the 30 years they lived together.

The case is Owens v. Automotive Machinists Pension Trust,W.D. Wash., No. C06-943Z, 1/19/07.