Legally Separated Spouse Entitled To Insurance Benefits

Gregory Malisos retired in 2008 after a 24-year career as a police officer with the Town of Windham, New Hampshire. When he retired, Malisos continued his and his wife’s health insurance coverage through the Town’s participation in the Local Government Center’s Health Trust insurance plan. As part of his retirement, Malisos’s “spouse” was entitled to the medical subsidy “until death or remarriage.”

A year after he retired, Malisos and his wife separated under a “Final Decree of Legal Separation” issued by a court. The retirement system then took the position that legally-separated spouses were not entitled to the medical subsidy, and terminated Malisos’ wife’s benefits. Because the System’s decision was retroactive, it notified Malisos that he owed the System $7,135.64.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court held that “the term ‘spouse’ is not defined in the statute. Therefore, we look to the plain and ordinary meaning of the term. Black’s Law Dictionary defines ‘spouse’ as ‘one’s husband or wife by lawful marriage; a married person.’ Likewise, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines ‘spouse’ as ‘a man or woman joined in wedlock: married person.’

“A legal separation differs from a divorce in that: (1) the parties are not free to marry any third person, (2) the name of the wife cannot be changed, and (3) the parties may at any time resume marital relations after filing a written declaration of such resumption with the clerk of the superior court for the county in which the separation was decreed. While a separation has in all respects the effect of a divorce, it is not a divorce, and the parties remain legally married. We hold that in the absence of any limiting language in the law to the contrary, the Legislature intended that an individual, although legally separated from a retiree, qualify as a spouse for purposes of eligibility for the medical subsidy benefit, until that individual’s death or remarriage. To conclude otherwise would add language to the retirement benefits statute that the Legislature did not see fit to include.”

Petition of Malisos, 2014 WL 4476982 (N.H. 2014).