Former Wife Not Entitled To Firefighter’s Death Benefits

James Woodward worked for the City of Portland, Oregon as a firefighter beginning in 1977. He married Leslie Rose in 1988. They had one child, born in 1994. In 2000, Rose and Woodward were divorced. In 2002, after Woodward became ill with pancreatic cancer, Rose and Woodward entered into a “Domestic Relations Order.” The Domestic Relations Order specified that if Woodward died before his retirement age without remarrying, Rose would be considered to be the “surviving spouse” for purposes of death benefits under the Portland Police and Fire Disability and Retirement Fund (Fund). Seven weeks later, Woodward died. He was 47 years of age and had not reached his earliest retirement age. When Rose applied for death benefits, the City opposed her request.

A court upheld the City’s decision to deny Rose the death benefits. The Court pointed to the provisions of the Charter language creating the Fund. Part of the Charter defined as a “surviving spouse” an individual “to whom a member was legally married throughout the 12-month period preceding death and from whom the member was not judiciously separated or divorced.” In the view of the Court, neither the divorce court nor Woodward and Rose had the ability to alter the Charter language in a way that would expand the definition of “surviving spouse.” In the eyes of the Court, nothing under the law gives a “divorce court authority to create benefits where there were none in existence before.”

Rose v. Board of Trustees, 2007 WL 2782537 (Or.App. 2007).

This article appears in the December 2007 issue