Divorce is a complicated and difficult situation for any Minnesota couple; however, members of the PERA Police and Fire Plan should take notice of some special considerations that could affect their access to Duty Disability benefits. Now, we do not practice family law at Meuser Law Office, P.A. but over our years of experience working with Minnesota police officers and firefighters we have routinely seen divorce decrees and domestic relations orders that do not distinguish between retirement and duty disability benefits. This non-distinction can have potentially devastating consequences if a police officer or firefighter sustains a disabling injury in the line of duty at any point following the divorce. Many family law attorneys are not well versed in PERA Duty Disability benefits so it is important for individual members to have the necessary information to protect these valuable disability benefits.
What is the distinction between Duty Disability and retirement benefits under the PERA Police and Fire Plan?
Minnesota police officers and firefighters are entitled to Duty Disability benefits under Minnesota Statutes section 353.656, subd. 1 if the service member suffers a physical or psychological condition that is expected to prevent him or her from performing his or her normal duties as a police officer or firefighter for a period of at least a year. The disability must be the direct result of an injury incurred during, or an illness arising out of, the performance of work duties and the duties must present inherent dangers that are specific to police officers or firefighters. This is a type of wage loss benefit paid at a base rate of sixty percent of your average monthly salary benefit during the highest five consecutive years of earnings.
It is our opinion that it is unfair for an ex-spouse to be entitled to a portion of a service member’s Duty Disability benefits because it is a wage benefit and entitlement is based solely on the service member’s inability to work due to a work-related disability. If an ex-spouse were to receive a portion of these benefits this would result in a windfall to the ex-spouse, who would benefit from their former husband or wife’s disability and corresponding wage loss. Duty Disability benefits should be distinguished from retirement benefits, as an ex-spouse is entitled to a percentage of a service member’s retirement benefits, which is usually calculated based on the length of the marriage.
Unfortunately, in several prior cases, Minnesota courts have not distinguished between Duty Disability benefits and retirement benefits and the default rule is that a service member’s ex-spouse is entitled to the service member’s Duty Disability benefits. To overcome the default rule, service members must be proactive and hire an attorney experienced in PERA benefits who can distinguish their Duty Disability benefits from their regular retirement benefits in the divorce documents.
What Steps Can Police Officers and Firefighters Take to Protect Their Duty Disability Benefits?
As a first step, we advise clients to contact PERA directly to inform them of the divorce and ask about options going forward. PERA will provide members with a packet of helpful information, including paperwork to change the listed beneficiary from the ex-spouse. Our PERA lawyers can assist you with reviewing and filling out the necessary documents.
Second, police officers and firefighters should have their family law attorney distinguish between Duty Disability benefits and retirement benefits in the divorce decree and/or domestic relations order. However, because Minnesota courts have interpreted Duty Disability benefits as retirement benefits, the service member and ex-spouse need to discuss and agree that the ex-spouse will not claim a right to Duty Disability benefits in the future. The language of this agreement must be accurately reflected in the divorce decree and/or domestic relations order.
Meuser Law Office, P.A. has represented hundreds of police officers and firefighters across the state of Minnesota. Call our office to set up a free, no obligation consultation and discuss the details of your specific situation. And remember, if you or another service member are in the process of a divorce, follow these simple guidelines to make sure you’re not confronted with any surprises in the future in the event you suffer a career-ending injury.