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Justices decline to take divorce case involving lump sum SSDI payment

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A divided Indiana Supreme Court will let stand the lower court ruling that affirmed a lump sum Social Security Disability Insurance payment was not an asset of marriage subject to division.

The justices declined June 19 to take on transfer John Luttrell v. Melinda Luttrell, 49A02-1301-DR-85. John Luttrell claimed the trial court improperly excluded Melinda Luttrell’s lump-sum Social Security Disability Insurance payment from the marital pot. The Court of Appeals, citing Severs v. Severs, 837 N.E.2d 498 (Ind. 2005), affirmed, writing “We … agree with Melinda that the broad statement by our supreme court that ‘any assignment or division of social security benefits to satisfy a marital property settlement under Indiana law is barred by 42 U.S.C. § 407,’ is not limited to a future income stream as at issue in that case, but also applies to the lump sum payment that Melinda received.”

In his dissent, in which Justice Loretta Rush joined, Justice Steven David wrote that the justices should take the case to provide guidance on the issue of whether a lump-sum SSDI payment is a marital asset subject to division upon divorce, or is a factor to be considered. He noted that the Supreme Court has never formally responded to the issue presented on transfer, as Severs dealt with a different issue involving SSDI.

“As it stands, the potential windfall for the spouse receiving the lump-sum SSDI payment is apparent, particularly where, under most circumstances, the lump sum represents lost income that was compensated for by a combination of the other spouse stepping up and both parties doing without during the period which gave rise to the SSDI qualification. Here, Melinda Luttrell’s lump-sum SSDI payment of $14,430.75 was not factored into the trial court’s division of the Luttrell marital estate, of which the net distribution of approximately $191,000 was split 60/40 in her favor. And in the next case where this issue arises, the lump-sum SSDI payment could be greater in amount and/or percent at stake. At minimum, one party’s receipt of a lump-sum SSDI payment should be a factor for the trial court to consider when awarding attorney’s fees,” David wrote.

The Court of Appeals also reversed the lower court’s ruling that excluded from property division the student loan liabilities of the Luttrells, who co-signed for their two children. The judges noted that there was little relevant caselaw regarding the disposition of contingent liability in divorce proceedings, but believed the loans should have been considered by the trial court.

The justices declined transfer to nine other cases for the week ending June 20. They granted transfer to Ralph Andrews v. Mor/Ryde International, Inc., 20S04-1406-PL-399, June 19 and issued a decision on the Indiana Sales Representative Act that same day.

The transfer list for the week ending June 20 is available on the court’s website.

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