First Wife, Not Second, Receives Widow’s Benefits After Officer Dies

Brian Goode was hired as a police officer by the Borough of Keansburg, New Jersey in August 1987. At the time, he was married to his first wife, Tamara. Brian enrolled in the Police and Fire Retirement System and designated Tamara as his primary beneficiary for all death benefits. Brian and Tamara divorced in 1991, but he did not change the PFRS beneficiary designation.

In 1992, Brian married Karen Goode. They had three children together. Brian listed Karen as a beneficiary on a $50,000 life insurance policy issued pursuant to Brian’s status as a Borough employee. However, for reasons that are unclear, Brian never changed his PFRS designation to substitute Karen for Tamara.

After troubles arose in the second marriage, Karen filed a divorce complaint in September 2003. In 2004, Brian was suspended by the Police Department without pay after he had provided testimony adverse to the Police Chief in an investigation by the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office. He was then terminated from his position in November 2006. He challenged his suspension and termination as retaliatory, both before the former Merit System Board and in a federal lawsuit.

The retaliation matters settled in July 2007. As part of the negotiated settlement with the Borough, Brian was reinstated in good standing but agreed to voluntarily resign effective November 30, 2007, in contemplation that he would be eligible to obtain a 20-year service pension as of that date. The Borough agreed in the settlement to pay Brian $120,000 within 30 days as a compromise amount for Brian’s claims for attorney’s fees and to pay for pension contributions to cover Brian’s service through the agreed-upon November 30, 2007 resignation date.

Five days after the settlement agreement was placed on the record, Brian died on August 1, 2007 of natural causes. Nevertheless, the Borough Council formally approved the settlement by resolution dated August 8, 2007.

In a letter dated March 13, 2008, PFRS took the position that because Brian was not an “active member of the system at the time of his death,” Karen was not entitled to the return of Brian’s pension contributions because Brian’s first wife, Tamara, was still the designated beneficiary on Brian’s filed beneficiary form.

An appeals court upheld PFRS’s decision. The Court found that “it is undisputed that Brian was not actually performing the responsibilities and functions of a police officer as of the date of his death, and he had not done so for several years. His protracted separation from police employment without pay cannot be deemed a mere ‘leave of absence’ because it continued for much longer than 93 days and was not for reasons of illness. The Borough and Brian could not contract to modify the status of Brian’s pension benefits by agreeing that the Borough would rescind his termination, which exceeded 93 days, and reinstate him in good standing without back pay.

“The plain language of the settlement documents unmistakably reflects that Brian was not to receive back pay for the period before the settlement and, for that matter, also would not receive pay for the ensuing four-month period between the settlement and the anticipated November 30, 2007 resignation date. The absence of such compensation is entirely consistent with the Board’s legal position that Brian was not in ‘active service’ as of the date of his death.

“Brian was not in the ‘active service’ as of the time of his death, and that consequently the only pension benefits payable from his PFRS account are his aggregate contributions owed to his beneficiary of record. With respect to the identity of the appropriate payee, it is unassailable that Tamara, not Karen, was the decedent’s beneficiary of record on file with the State as of the August 1, 2007 date of death.”

Goode v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen’s Retirement System, 2010 WL 2346718 (N.J. Super. A.D. 2010).

This article appears in the September 2010 issue