Valuation of pension plan and expert testimony: HIBDON V. HIBDON (COA 12/21/2007)

HIBDON V. HIBDON
FAMILY LAW:  Marital property, division of pension plan
2006-CA-000634
PUBLISHED: REVERSING AND REMANDING
PANEL: THOMPSON, PRESIDING; MOORE, GRAVE CONCUR
COUNTY: BULLITT
DATE RENDERED: 12/21/2007

Husband appealed from order of the Bullitt County Circuit Court (TC), confirming Domestic Relations Commissioner’s (DRC’s) report, dividing his pension plan with Ex-wife, contending that TC erred in its computation of the present value of the plan. 

Husband and Ex-Wife were married for 27 years. Husband began earning his pension benefits shortly after the parties married. The primary disagreement between the parties concerned the present value of Husband’s defined benefits pension plan. However, at the hearing on this issue, only Ex-Wife offered evidence in regard to the calculation of the plan’s value. Included in Ex-Wife’s evidence was a pension valuation which utilized the monthly benefit amount Husband would receive if he continued to work until his normal retirement age, multiplied by 174 months (Husband’s post-retirement life expectancy), and then discounted to present value by 2.25% per local rule. DRC’s findings of fact and conclusions of law concluded that Husband’s pension plan had a value equal to that calculated by Wife, to be discounted for present value by 2.25%, and the entirety of that amount was marital property. DRC did not explain how he arrived at a 2.25% annual discount rate, nor does the rule allow for the Commissioner to explain the influence of the annual inflation rate or other essential data required to provide a competent analysis of the pension plan’s present value. 

After no exceptions were filed within ten days, TC adopted DRC’s report in its entirety. Husband then filed a motion pursuant to CR 59.05 to alter or amend TC’s order adopting DRC’s report, asserting that DRC accepted Ex-Wife’s erroneous evidence regarding the value of his pension plan. TC assigned matter to DRC for a recommendation as to whether TC’s order should be altered or amended. After hearing, DRC filed his report recommending that Husband’s CR 59.05 motion be denied because he had not offered any new evidence which was not readily available to him at the property division hearing. Before TC could act on the recommendation, Husband filed a motion for a hearing to contest DRC’s valuation of his pension plan. TC adopted DRC’s recommendation to deny the first CR 59.05 motion and denied Husband’s motion for hearing. This appeal followed.

Ex-Wife argues that Husband’s failures to offer evidence of the present value of the pension and to timely file exceptions to DRC’s report are fatal to his appeal. CA disagreed, finding that TC abdicated its discretion to DRC and erred by adopting a present day value of Husband’s pension plan which was not supported by competent evidence. Further, even if Husband insufficiently preserved the issue for review, a palpable error affecting the substantial rights of an individual resulting in manifest injustice is reviewable, even if insufficiently raised or preserved.

Although the evidence as to the value of the pension was limited and offered only by Ex-Wife, CA held that, as a matter of law, the value assigned to the pension plan was clearly erroneous and the error so serious that it must be considered palpable. TC miscalculated the present value of his pension plan by allowing Husband’s post-divorce earnings to be included in the calculation of the present value of the pension plan. Because Ex-Wife’s share of the pension was limited to her interest in its accumulated value earned during the marriage, TC abused its discretion by allowing Ex-Wife to receive a share of the pension which included Husband’s post-divorce earnings. Reversed and remanded for a new hearing to determine the marital distribution of Husband’s pension as of the date of the parties’ divorce.

CA noted that Bullitt County’s local rule regarding establishment of present day value of a pension negates the requirement of expert testimony and is not based upon accepted accounting or economic principles, and that entry of a QDRO dividing the pension would be simpler and is a preferable method of division of pensions.

Michelle Eisenmenger Mapes
Diana L. Skaggs + Associates

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