Judgment for spouse affirmed in military pension benefits appeal

A military veteran ordered to pay his ex-wife lost pension benefits after he opted to receive combat-related service compensation has lost his appeal of a partial denial of his motion to vacate judgment.

Upon his return from his last deployment to Iraq, Travis Edwards’ marriage to Valerie Edwards dissolved pursuant to an agreement that provided that Valerie would “be entitled to 50% of the monthly pension benefit accrued during the course of the marriage to and including the date of the final dissolution to be received by [Edwards] from the U.S. Military … .”

When the dissolution was entered, Edwards was still on active duty. During a five-month period after his retirement from the military, Valerie received the 50% of Edwards’ pension benefit as provided in the dissolution decree. However, Edwards chose to receive combat-related service compensation that required he waive his right to military pension benefits, without Valerie’s knowledge. He did not make payments to replace the amount Valerie had lost as a result.

Upon notice that she would no longer receive her portion of the benefits, Valerie filed a contempt motion seeking an order directing Edwards to pay her the pension benefit arrears that had accumulated and to continue to pay her 50% of the pension benefit. In December 2015, trial court found Edwards in contempt, and ordered he pay the amount owed Valerie, relying on Bandini v. Bandini, 935 N.E.2d 253, 264 (Ind. Ct. App. 2010).

Years later, the trial court partially denied Edwards’ motion to vacate judgment pursuant to Trial Rule 60(B)(6). The trial court found that Edwards had not appealed the 2015 order, that the order was thus binding on the parties, and that Howell v. Howell, 581 U.S. ___, 137 S.Ct. 1400, 197 E.Ed.2d 781 (2017), while overruling Bandini, did not render the order void because it did not indicate its application to be retroactive.

The trial court thus denied Edwards’ request to set aside the previously entered $44,338.75 judgment for Valerie, but ordered that the 2015 order was set aside and vacated effective May 3, 2018, on the date of Edwards’ motion to set aside.

Edwards appealed the partial denial of his Trial Rule 60 motion to vacate judgment, contending that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to enter the 2015 order because federal law and United States Supreme Court precedent precluded it.

On the issue of subject matter jurisdiction, the Indiana Court of Appeals noted that the trial court had original and concurrent jurisdiction in all civil cases.

“Indiana Code section 31-15-2-2, which establishes a cause of action for the dissolution of marriage, grants broad discretion to trial courts to entertain dissolution proceedings and establishes subject matter jurisdiction over those proceedings,” Judge Patricia Riley wrote. “Thus, the trial court unquestionably had subject matter jurisdiction to entertain issues related to the civil matter of the division of Edwards’ and Valerie’s assets pursuant to a dissolution proceeding. Whether the trial court applied the correct law in this case, be it federal or state law, is a question of legal error, not a question of subject matter jurisdiction.”

The appellate court additionally rejected Edwards’ res judicata argument.

“Because lack of subject matter jurisdiction for the 2015 Order was the basis for all of Edwards’ appellate claims, we conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it partially denied Edwards’ motion to vacate judgment,” the appellate court concluded. “For the same reason, we conclude that Edwards has not demonstrated reversible error, even in light of the relaxed standard of review applied to this appeal.”

The case is In Re the Marriage of: Travis Edwards v. Valerie Edwards, 19-A-DR-509.

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