Widow Wins Resumption Of Pension Payments

THE CHIEF-LEADER, FRIDAY, MARCH 6, 1981

A widow who loses the right to collect her husband's death benefits because she has remarried may regain that right if the second marriage is annulled.

That decision was handed down by New York State Supreme Court Justice Andrew R. Tyler in a case involving the widow of a Transit Authority Police Officer who died in a line-of-duty accident in 1972.

In 1974, the Board of Trustee of the New York City Employees' Retirement System awarded Patricia C. Skagen, widow of Police Officer John M. Skagen, an accidental death benefit for the rest of her life unless she remarried. In case of death or remarriage, the death benefits would be paid to her son, John M. Skagen JR. until 1986, when he reached the age of 18.

Remarried in 1977

Ms. Skagen remarried in 1977, losing the death benefits, which then went to her son. Two years later, the remarriage was annulled on the grounds that Mrs. Skagen's consent to the marriage was procured by fraud. In reply to an inquiry by Mrs. Skagen, NYCERS informed her that the annulment of the marriage did not entitle her to a resumption of payment of the accidental death benefit.

Ms. Skagen, through her attorney, Gary Glenn, initiated an Article 78 proceeding in New York State Supreme Court.

Ms. Skagen claimed she was entitled to a resumption of the death benefit because an annulled marriage should be treated as if it had never taken place.

Justice Tyler agreed. Although the court could find no previous New York rulings on the effect of an annulment on pension rights, it held that as a general rule "an annulment of a widow's remarriage restores to her the pension rights held by her as the widow of the first husband prior to remarriage."

Justice Tyler cited cases from Pennsylvania and California which have held that annulment of a remarriage entitled the widow to resume collecting her late husband's pension. The basis for such decisions, he noted, is that the widow is an innocent party who would lose a right she would otherwise have enjoyed but for the conduct of a third party, in this case her second husband.

Moreover, the court said it recognized no distinction between the treatment of pension benefits in such a case and the treatment of an accidental death benefit. Justice Tyler ordered NYCERS to resume paying Ms. Skagen her husband's death benefit as of the date the marriage was declared annulled.