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Hartley v. Hartley

Supreme Court of Alaska

April 17, 2009

John A. HARTLEY, Appellant,
v.
Tina M. HARTLEY, Appellee.

Page 343

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 344

G.R. Eschbacher and Justin Eschbacher, Anchorage, for Appellant.

Jennifer L. Holland, Law Offices of Jennifer L. Holland, Anchorage, for Appellee.

Before : FABE, Chief Justice, MATTHEWS, EASTAUGH, CARPENETI, and WINFREE, Justices.

OPINION

EASTAUGH, Justice.

I. INTRODUCTION

John and Tina Hartley's pre-divorce property settlement agreement awarded Tina fifty-seven percent of the monthly benefit accrued in John's Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS) defined benefit plan. The agreement did not specify whether Tina's payments should be based on John's highest three salary years during the marriage or upon his future retirement. Nor did it specify who should bear the cost of Tina's FERS survivor benefit or how that benefit should be divided.

The superior court's FERS qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) based Tina's share on an average of John's highest three salary years at retirement. John contends that it should instead be calculated using the average of his highest three salary years during the marriage. He also argues that the superior court should have held an evidentiary hearing to resolve the dispute, that he should not have to pay part of the cost of Tina's FERS survivor benefit, and that it was error to award Tina one-hundred percent of that survivor benefit.

We affirm. The agreement did not expressly resolve these disputes, and the superior court did not abuse its discretion in resolving them. Nor did it err by failing to hold an evidentiary hearing.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

John and Tina Hartley married in August 1985 and separated in March 2006. Tina sued for divorce in October 2006. In June 2007 John and Tina entered into and filed with the court a property settlement agreement that, among other things, divided the benefits from John's FERS defined benefit plan and from his other three retirement

Page 345

plans.[1] The agreement's relevant paragraph concerning the FERS plan reads:

Tina Hartley shall be awarded 57.0% of the monthly benefit accrued as a result of John Hartley's participation in the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) between August 3, 1985 and October 3, 2006, together with any gains or losses on that 57.0% interest that have accrued since October 3, 2006. John Hartley shall be awarded all other interest in the FERS retirement. Tina Hartley's interest will be addressed through a " separate interest" QDRO or, if that is not permitted by the Plan, a " shared interest" QDRO with a survivor's benefit.

In June 2007 the superior court held a settlement hearing at which John and Tina both testified that they understood the property settlement agreement, that it was fair and equitable, and that they entered into the agreement voluntarily. The superior court then orally found that " [the property] agreement represents a fair and equitable division of the parties['] marital estate."

On the same day, the court issued written findings of fact and conclusions of law in which it again found that the parties' property agreement was fair and equitable and ruled that the " property division provisions shall be ordered as set forth in the parties' Agreement[ ]." The court also then issued a divorce decree.

In November Tina filed proposed QDROs for each of John's four retirement accounts. The proposed QDRO for John's FERS account stated that it was awarding to Tina fifty-seven percent of the marital portion of John's FERS retirement benefits, but did not specify whether her portion would be based on John's average high-three salary years at the time of his future retirement or at the end of their marriage. The proposed QDRO also stated that it was awarding Tina a " pro rata share" of John's survivor annuity and that John and Tina would equally share the cost of that benefit.

When the proposed FERS QDRO was filed in November 2007 John was fifty-one years old, and as of January 16, 2008 he was still employed by the federal government and had not yet retired.

John filed a partial " opposition motion" in response to Tina's proposed FERS QDRO.[2]He argued that the proposed FERS QDRO did not reflect his understanding of the parties' agreement and that the date for determining the high-three salary years needed to be clarified. He contended that Tina's share should be based on John's high-three salary years as of October 3, 2006, when Tina filed for divorce. He also argued that the property settlement agreement did not define who would pay the cost of the survivor benefit and that Tina should bear fifty-seven percent of that cost. Finally, he requested an evidentiary hearing on his partial opposition motion. Tina opposed John's motion.

In January 2008 the superior court adopted Tina's proposed FERS QDRO and implicitly denied John's partial opposition motion. The ...


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