Pension plan wins appeal in suit challenging bifurcated divorce

A long-running pension dispute involving a woman whose husband died during the pendency of a bifurcated divorce hearing is headed back to the trial court after the Indiana Court of Appeals found multiple issues with the lower court’s rulings.

Michael Hickey filed for divorce from his wife Jackie L. Hickey in 2009, after which the Lake Circuit Court agreed to bifurcate the proceedings. The court dissolved the marriage and set a later hearing on distribution of marital assets. The trial court later awarded Jackie one-third of her ex-husband’s pension from his employer, ArcelorMittal.

But before a court-ordered valuation of the pension could be completed, Michael died in 2012, after which Jackie filed a motion to set aside the divorce decree. The trial court voided the dissolution order and declared her Michael’s widow, entitling her to a share of his pension.

ArcelorMittal USA LLC Pension Plan has taken this case to the Court of Appeals previously, when the appeals panel reversed the trial court’s denial of the steelmaker pension plan’s motion to intervene. In this subsequent appeal, the COA again sided with the pension plan, pointing out the flaws in the lower court’s ruling, starting with its decision to bifurcate the divorce proceedings. The COA reasoned that any errors by the trial court were invited by Jackie.

“Wife’s acquiescence to bifurcation was also evident in the facts that she participated without complaint in the two subsequent hearings regarding the distribution of marital property and that she did not request relief from the dissolution order until she discovered she was unable to benefit from Husband’s pension after his death,” Judge Melissa May wrote for the panel. “To the extent the statutory filing requirements for bifurcation were not met, the record indicates Wife expressly and implicitly invited the error and was supportive of the bifurcation when it appeared to suit her interests. A party that invites error may not then take advantage of that error.

“… The trial court abused its discretion when it denied ArcelorMittal’s motion for relief from the trial court’s order that vacated the original dissolution decree between Husband and Wife because the court also erred when it granted Wife’s earlier relief from judgment when she had invited any error in that judgment,” May continued. “Accordingly, we reverse the trial court’s denial of ArcelorMittal’s motion for relief from the trial court’s May 23, 2014, order. We remand for further proceedings.”

The case is In re the Marriage of Michael Hickey (Deceased) v. Jackie L. Hickey, v. ArcelorMittal USA LLC Pension Plan, 45A05-1710-DR-2535.

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