Sunday, May 28, 2006

Case Law Development: Sixth Circuit Applies Restatement in Resolving Conflict Between Wives Over Pension Benefits

When Douglas Durden died in Michigan, two women came forward and each claimed she was his “surviving spouse” and entitled to surviving spouse benefits under his employer’s pension program. Douglas had marred Ann in Ohio in 1966 and she insisted that they had never been divorced and Ohio law required Douglas’s employer to pay her the benefits.  The second wife, Rita, said Douglas divorced Ann in 1971 and married her in 1985 in Las Vegas, Nevada. She insisted that Michigan law applied because Douglas worked in Michigan and the survivor’s benefits were to be paid by a Michigan employer.(There was no documentary proof that he had ever divorced Ann, his first wife.)  Rita was paid $58,500 on a life insurance policy in which she was listed as the beneficiary.  However, DaimlerChrysler refused to pay the survivors benefits absent a decision by a court making it clear which of the two women should receive them.

In ruling in Ann’s favor, the court applied and interpreted section 187(2)(b) of the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws. This provision, said the court, provides that the “[t]he validity of a marriage will be determined by the local law of the state which, with respect to the particular issue, has the most significant relationship to the spouses and the marriage.” In the court’s view, Ohio had the most significant relationship because Ann and Douglas’s marriage was solemnized there and both lived there as husband and wife. Furthermore, Rita and Douglas lived in Oho from 1985 to 2003 after their Nevada marriage.  The court said that although Douglas worked in Michigan, that state does not have a significant relationship to either of the wives or their marriages.

The court also said that Ohio law evidences a policy of protecting individuals like Ann from bearing the burden of proof. Application of Michigan law, which would place the burden on Ann to demonstrate she was not divorced from Douglas, would be contrary to this policy.  Ohio’s presumption in favor of the continuation of the first marriage demonstrates a fundamental policy pf that state and application of Michigan law pursuant to the choice of law provision would be contrary to that fundamental policy. Finally, the court said that Ohio has a material greater interest than Michigan in determining whether Ann or Rita is Douglas's surviving spouse.  The reason for this is that none of the Michigan entities involved in the litigation  has an interest in which claimant prevails. Ohio has a fundamental policy of protecting married persons from the consequences of their spouse entering into a subsequent marriage where it is not clear whether the prior marriage was dissolved. Enforcing the choice of law provision and applying Michigan law would be contrary to this fundamental policy. The court concluded that Ohio a materially greater interest than Michigan in the determination of which woman is entitled to receive the survivor’s benefits. “Consequently, this is one of the rare cases which fits within the exception described in section 187(2)(b).” The Sixth Circuit opinion can be found by clicking here (last visited May 27, 2006, reo).

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