Divorce, Timeliness of Qualified Domestic Relations Orders and Statute of Limitations

I have previously written that in order to divide retirement assets after the parties’ divorce, the court must enter a qualified domestic relations order (“QDRO”) to divide such assets. However, it is not uncommon that a QDRO is not entered right away. Occasionally, I see cases where there is a need to enter a QDRO many years after the entry of the judgment of divorce. Recently, in Patricia A. M., v. Eugene W. M., 2009 N.Y. Slip. Op. 29232 (Sup. Ct. 2009), the Supreme Court, Erie County, provided an illustration of what pitfalls may be faced by a divorce litigant who waits a significant period of time before obtaining a QDRO.

Eugene M., retired on November 4, 2000, and began receiving pension benefits at that time. A QDRO was signed on March 15, 2006, and an amended QDRO was granted on November 21, 2006, putting into effect the rights of Patricia M., regarding Mr. M.’s pension benefits. Prior to entry of either QDRO, Mr. M. began paying part of his pension benefits to Ms. M., commencing in May 2002, at the rate of $650.00 per month.  Ms. M. brought a motion seeking recovery of amounts she claims she should have been paid as her portion of Mr. M.’s pension prior to the commencement of direct payments pursuant to the QDRO. These amounts covered the period from the date of retirement to April 2002, a missed payment in November 2005, and the period from February 2006 to December 2006, when no payments were made. In addition, she alleged that she received only a partial payment in December 2005. The total amount allegedly owed was $19,770.46.

Mr. M. opposed the motion, arguing that this motion, inter alia, was barred by the statute of limitations applicable to contract actions. He asserted that the equitable distribution of his pension benefits was not specifically mentioned in the judgment of divorce and, therefore, Ms. M.’s only remedy is a breach of contract action. The court held that, under Tauber v. Lebow, 65 N.Y.2d 596 (1985), payments awarded in a divorce decree “do not constitute a judgment debt until the arrearages are reduced through further proceedings to a judgment.” Ms. M.’s claim for breach of the agreement accrued at the time of the breach, which was no earlier than the date of Mr. M.’s retirement, in November 2000. Because Mr. M.’s obligation was to pay on a monthly basis as pension benefits were paid to him, each failure to pay constituted a separate breach. This left Ms. M. unable to recover for those amounts she claimed were not paid from November 2000 to April 2002.

The lesson of this case is that this litigation could have been avoided, and Ms. M would not have lost those retirement payments, had the lawyer for Ms. M. entered a QDRO in a timely fashion.  Further, the statute of limitations applicable to contract actions may arise in post-divorce proceedings in other ways as well.  For example, if a post-divorce child support arrears cannot be enforced by seeking enforcement of the judgment of divorce, and instead the party is forced to proceed to enforce a separation agreement as a contract, the same six-year statute of limitations may be applicable.

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