Sukerman: Accidental disability benefits are marital property subject to equitable division

In the last session of 2009, the New Hampshire Supreme Court issued its opinion In the Matter of Michele Sukerman and William Sukerman, in which the court held that accidental disability pension benefits are subject to equitable distribution in divorce proceedings. Court litigants should keep in mind that this case does not govern how accidental disability benefits or other marital assets will be divided, but rather holds that any property not excluded by law is thrown into “the pot.” How it will be divided is subject to the specific facts and circumstances of each case, and the factors set forth in RSA 458:16-a

William Sukerman was an employee at the Massachusetts Port Authority (MassPort) Fire and Rescue in Boston from 1991 until a heart attack forced him into retirement in 2008. Upon retirement William began receiving a pension under the Massachusetts retirement system which consisted of an ordinary pension benefit, an annuity and an accidental disability pension benefit. The final divorce decree of the Derry Family Division awarded Michele one-half of the William’s entire “pension plan which accrued between the date of the marriage . . . and the date of the filing of the petition for divorce.”

William argued on appeal that the accidental disability benefit should not have been included in the marital property distribution because it was compensation for lost earning capacity as well as pain and suffering. The court disagreed, and took a “mechanistic approach,” under which all property acquired during the marriage “without regard to title, or to when or how acquired is deemed to be marital property unless it is specifically excepted by statute.” There is no such exception for accidental disability pension benefits in RSA 458:16-a.

The court concluded that this so-called mechanistic approach “best comports with New Hampshire’s equitable distribution law,” under RSA 458:16-a, which provides that “all tangible and intangible property and assets, real or personal, belonging to either or both parties, whether title is held in the name of either or both parties” is subject to equitable distribution. Consequently, the Sukerman case stands for the proposition that so long as there is no specific statutory authority excepting accidental disability benefits from property settlement, such benefits, being acquired during marriage, are marital property and therefore subject to distribution.

Crusco Law Office, PLLC law clerk Dan McLaughlin contributed to this post.

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Coco del Bosque - February 12, 2011 4:39 PM

This is interesting precedent. I had been told that in NH, parties in divorce proceedings are generally unable to include their spouses claim on inheritances and assets held-in-trust "in the pot" for equitable distribution, regardless of whether the spouse became a beneficiary to those assets during the course of the marriage. It is also interesting that the Derry Family Court defined the duration of the marriage according to the date of the petition for divorce. Is that the common practice in NH? One would assume that the duration of marriage would be defined between the date of marriage and the execution of a final decree.

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