Rhode Island matrimonial law generally entitles a divorcing spouse to a portion of the other spouse’s retirement or pension assets that accrued during the marriage. This general rule appears to be straightforward, however, it can be distorted in practice. An especially difficult situation can arise when a spouse remarries after a divorce, and both their ex-spouse and current spouse may have a claim for the benefits. A division of the Rhode Island Superior Court recently decided a case in which a former spouse had sued the widow of a deceased man, seeking retirement benefits to which she was awarded in the prior divorce.
The plaintiff in the recently decided case divorced her husband in 1995. As part of a property settlement, the parties agreed that the plaintiff would be entitled to half of the man’s retirement account in lieu of an alimony award. The man remarried years later and continued to accrue retirement benefits from his employer. The man died in 2020, and both his former spouse and his widow sought the surviving spouse benefits from the man’s employer. After the employer refused to award the benefits to the ex, she sued both the employer and the widow, seeking to enforce the divorce agreement and receive the retirement benefits.
After discussing the relevant laws, the Court ruled that the widow was entitled to all of the retirement benefits. Notably, the court found that because the 1995 divorce settlement agreement was “incorporated but not merged” into the final divorce judgment, the settlement was not enforceable by the family court and instead simply as a contract between the parties. Because the laws dictating the dispersal of pension benefits superseded contractual obligations in this case, the ex-spouse did not have a valid claim over the assets.