COA: Dissolution court retained jurisdiction even after ex-husband’s death

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A dissolution court retained jurisdiction over a case after one of the parties died because there were still outstanding issues within the dissolution decree that needed to be resolved, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.

After their divorce in 2012, a dissolution decree for Judith and Allen Edwards was entered awarding Judith Edwards a 50 percent interest in her ex-husband’s pension and retirement benefits with John Hancock, PERF and Valic for the coverture period of 20 years and five months, and for any appreciation in the value of that share as of the effective date of the qualified domestic relations order. However, the decree did not assign responsibility for preparing the QDRO or other documents necessary to divide the pension or benefits.

Allen Edwards’ attorney prepared a QDRO for the Valic account, but it was rejected. Then, after four years without receiving her designated share of the benefits, Judith Edwards filed for relief from judgment, claiming she had followed up with her ex-husband’s attorney “from time to time” to determine the status of her share but to no avail.

Then, after learning that her ex was terminally ill and had only a short time to live, Judith Edwards filed an emergency motion to obtain the assets she was awarded in the dissolution decree. The court then learned Allen Edwards had removed his ex-wife and daughter as his primary beneficiaries of his PERF account and instead replaced them with his fiancée, Juatrice Davis.

Judith Edwards then filed a petition for an immediate restraining order without notice. The Porter Superior Court issued the restraining order with the agreement of the parties, prohibiting Allen Edwards from disposing any of his pension or retirement benefits.

Additionally, the trial court ordered Judith Edwards’ attorney to complete QDROs for her to receive her share of the Valic and John Hancock accounts and also reserved jurisdiction over the issue of the division of the PERF account. Allen Edwards died the next day, and his now-wife Jautrice Edwards, sought to intervene due to an interest in some of the property encumbered in the restraining order.

Juatrice Edwards further argued the dissolution court no longer had jurisdiction due to her husband’s death, and the court agreed and determined the temporary restraining order should be dismissed. Judith Edwards then appealed that decision.

In a Thursday opinion, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the dissolution court’s determination that it had lost jurisdiction, with Senior Judge Edward Sharpnack writing that exceptions exist to the rule that dissolution proceedings terminate with the death of one of the parties.

Specifically, Judith Edwards pointed to the exception in Lizak v. Schultz, 496 N.E.2d 40, 43 (Ind. 1986), in which a dissolution court was “permitted to reduce child support arrearages to a judgment after the death of the spouse entitled to the child support payments.” The subsequent spouse, as administrator of the estate, was also entitled to pursue enforcement of the award entered prior to the death in dissolution court.

“A dissolution court may exercise continuing jurisdiction to reexamine a property settlement where the nature of the examination is to seek clarification of a prior order,” Sharpnack wrote.

Further, continuing jurisdiction would have allowed the dissolution court to address allegations of fraud relating to the final decree and the QDROs, and issues of appreciation or depreciation of Judith Edwards’ share of the benefits, Sharpnack said. Thus, the court erred in dismissing the restraining order until the assets were properly divided.

The court’s order was reversed and the case of Judith M. Edwards (n/k/a Judith Klemos) v. Allen O. Edwards, Deceased and D. Juatrice Edwards, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Allen O. Edwards, 64A03-1608-DR-1954, was remanded for further proceedings.

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