A Maryland District Court charged with deciding whether a retired union worker’s first wife was entitled to spousal benefits in her ex-husband’s union pension plans was not swayed by the claim that Judge Joseph Wapner once concluded on “The People’s Court” television show that the worker’s Mexican divorce was illegal. The union worker married his first wife in Chile in 1975. Shortly after their divorce in Mexico in 1983, the ex-husband married his second wife in California. Twenty-three years and three children later, the union worker divorced his second wife in 2006. In connection with the divorce, the second wife obtained a qualified domestic relations order awarding her benefits in her ex-husband’s pension plans. Both the ex-husband and the second wife began receiving benefits on his retirement in 2010.
In 2011, the worker’s first wife contacted the union pension fund, claiming benefits on the basis that the Mexican divorce was illegal, making her the legal spouse. In support of her claim, the ex-wife stated that both the Social Security Administration and Judge Wapner concluded the divorce was not legal. Responding to the first wife’s claims, the union fund notified the union worker and his second wife that the initial determination regarding the second marriage was invalid and that repayment of benefits would be required. Ultimately, the question as to the validity of the Mexican divorce ended up in district court. Unmoved by the alleged determination of an invalid divorce by “The People’s Court,” the district court noted that the first wife waited almost 30 years to challenge the divorce, during which time the husband remarried and raised three children with his second wife. The court found that permitting a challenge to the validity of the second marriage now “would be plainly inequitable” and held that the first wife had no claim to benefits under the union plans. (Board of Trustees of the Master, Mates & Pilots Pension Plan v. Carney, D. Md., 2013)