The Torres Case
In 2002, the Honolulu law office of Blake T. Okimoto achieved a noteworthy victory on behalf of a client in the Supreme Court of the State of Hawaii. The case of Torres v. Torres established the right to a share in the retirement benefits of an ex-spouse who died before receiving benefits.
The Torres case centered on the husband’s retirement pension plan, which was subject to a comprehensive and complex Federal law governing employee benefit plans known as ERISA. Under ERISA, domestic relations orders (DROs) such as divorce decrees must meet certain specific requirements if they attempt to deal with pension plans in the property division.
ERISA originally prohibited pension plans from assigning benefits to individuals other than the employee or current surviving spouse. The effect of this provision was to put the ex-spouse at risk of being frozen out from benefits attributable to employment that occurred during the marriage, marital property which would ordinarily be subject to division by the family court. Amendments to ERISA altered this provision by permitting pension benefits to be disbursed to a former spouse who presents a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) to a pension plan administrator. The requirements for a DRO to qualify as a QDRO, however, are stringent and specific.
The Torres divorce occurred in 1989, and the husband (Alfred) remarried two years later. The initial divorce decree awarded the ex-wife (Margot) one-half (½) of Alfred’s retirement benefits whenever he was to begin receiving them. The decree did not, however, clearly state whether Margot was entitled to surviving spouse benefits in the event of Alfred’s death, a required element of a QDRO.
Alfred died in 1999, before he began receiving retirement benefits. Margot had been informed by the pension plan administrator in 1997 that the divorce decree did not qualify under ERISA, so Margot went to court to have the initial divorce decree amended to qualify as a QDRO. The current spouse (Louan) objected to the order and filed a motion for the court to reconsider, which was denied. The effect of the court’s decisions was to award survivorship benefits from Alfred’s pension to Margot.
Louan appealed to the Supreme Court of Hawaii, which affirmed the decisions of the family court in favor of Margot. Blake T. Okimoto represented Margot on the appeal before the state’s highest court.
The 65-page decision delved into complex topics such as the interpretation of ERISA and its subsequent amendments, and the interplay between ERISA and state law, specifically section 580-56 of Hawaii Revised Statutes. The family court, in issuing its initial decree, had retained jurisdiction over the case to make any further orders which are just and equitable. In the end, the Supreme Court held that it was just and equitable for the court to amend its order so that Margot would receive a share of the retirement benefits, since the right to the benefits was earned during the marriage.
If you are facing a divorce in Oahu, you want a knowledgeable, skilled, and experienced attorney. Blake T. Okimoto has the ability to successfully resolve even the most complex family law matters. Call 808-943-8899 today.