The Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the Family Court in a ground-breaking decision last month in one of our cases that we believe will set a new precedent for future property divisions in the State of Delaware.
The background of the case
I obtained a default judgement on behalf of a recently-divorced wife that required her former husband to pay her approximately $11,400 in cash, in pertinent part, plus other obligations, to divide the marital estate incident to the divorce. Her former spouse refused to make the court-ordered payments and testified at the Rule to Show Cause hearing that he could not afford to make monthly payments, despite receiving $66,000 per year in disability income from Social Security benefits, Veteran’s Affairs benefits and a United States Post Office disability pension. The Family Court ruled in my client’s favor, finding her former husband in contempt of court because her former husband had sufficient disability income to make monthly payments to my client. To ensure that my client received what was due to her under the Family Court’s default judgment, the Family Court judge issued an attachment against the former husband’s United States Postal Office disability pension.
Setting a new Delaware family law precedent
Prior to this decision, there was no question that the Family Court had the authority to divide the marital portion of a former spouse’s pension as part of a property division incident to a divorce, and it made no difference whether the employee was actively working, disabled or retired at the time of the division. The question presented here was very different: it was whether the Family Court had the authority to attach a non-marital disability pension as part of a contempt action to ensure a former spouse received cash for their former partner’s share of the attorney’s fees and marital debt retained in her name under its prior ancillary order incident to the parties’ divorce.
The case was elevated to the Delaware Supreme Court through an appeal by my client’s former husband. The Delaware Supreme Court ruled in my client’s favor on August 20, 2015, affirming the decision of the Family Court, issued by Judge Joelle P. Hitch on October 14, 2014.
What this means for future property division cases
By nature of this ruling, the Family Court may attach a marital or non-marital disability or retirement pension (FERS or CSRS) of a federal employee former spouse to ensure payment of the former spouse's financial obligations under any court order or court-approved property settlement agreement incident to a divorce decree. This Delaware Supreme Court holding gives the Family Court another method by which to ensure compliance with its Court Orders and may change the future of property division cases in Delaware. We will be keeping our eye on this trend to see how it takes shape in the coming years.
For more information on this case, check out the case ruling here.