PROVIDENCE — The ex-wife of a retired Providence police major has contested her claim that she, and not the man’s current wife at the time of his death, was the beneficiary of his retirement benefits as part of their 1994 divorce.
The case centers around who was legally considered Mike Wilson’s surviving wife – his ex-wife or his current wife at the time of his death.
Supreme Court judge to rule Last week, Marilyn Wilson was not entitled to the pension of her ex-husband, the late Providence Police Major Milton R. “Mike” Wilson, but the benefits should, under state and city law, instead flow to his wife at the time of his death in December 2020. The judge’s decision contradicts an agreement recorded in divorce proceedings decades earlier in family court.
Mike Wilson joined the Providence Police Department in 1957, a graduate of the city’s 18th Police Academy. He was promoted to sergeant in 1967 and then to lieutenant four years later, and rose to captain and then to major in 1983. In this role, he led the detective office, according to his obituary.
Divorce settlement gives benefits to the ex-wife
According to the ruling, Marilyn and Mike Wilson married in 1988. Marilyn Wilson filed for divorce six years later.
Mike Wilson retired before the final divorce ruling. He applied for a service pension on December 27, 1994, and applied for retirement benefits with the Staff Retirement System on March 15, 1995, choosing “the maximum pension with continuing benefits for his wife (Marilyn Wilson) immediately” (his death), according to the lawsuit.
On April 29, 1995, Marilyn and Mike Wilson entered into a property settlement agreement to divide their estate and set out support obligations. That agreement provided that Mike Wilson “shall nominate (Marlin) as a designated beneficiary to receive his pension benefit from the City of Providence.”
On June 1, 1995, the Family Court issued a decision that, pending final judgment, incorporated the terms of the agreement by reference but did not incorporate the terms into the final judgment.
Mike Wilson married Diane Wilson in 1997 and the couple lived together and shared property and financial resources until his death on December 5, 2020, according to the lawsuit. Upon his death, the City of Providence began paying the surviving spouse’s benefits to his current wife, Diane Wilson.
The ex-wife is suing for benefits
In January 2021, Marilyn Wilson, through her attorneys Robert P. Brooks and Stephen DeLapatine, contacted Deputy City Attorney Kenneth P. Schiavarini, claiming that she was entitled to surviving spouse benefits based on the divorce decree. Schiavarini replied that any death benefit under Wilson’s maximum option pension would have been used up about 10 1/2 years after his retirement, with nothing left to be paid to Marilyn Wilson as the designated beneficiary. Marilyn also informed Wilson that the surviving spouse’s benefit, based on state law, must be paid to the current surviving spouse, in accordance with the ruling.
Marilyn Wilson applied for relief in family court, which refused to rule on whether the city was required to pay the surviving spouse’s dues.
In March 2022, Marilyn Wilson filed a complaint with the Supreme Court against the City of Providence, alleging breach of contract and being declared a recipient of a surviving spouse’s benefit.
In November of that year, Mike Wilson’s current wife, Diane Wilson, filed a joint suit against the city, seeking a declaration that she was Mike Wilson’s surviving wife and entitled to his surviving wife’s pension benefits.
Thunberg heard arguments in the case in May.
Who is the surviving spouse?
According to the ruling, Marilyn Wilson argued that she is Mike Wilson’s surviving wife and entitled to the benefits because state and city law governing pensions lack an anti-impeachment clause. She also asserted that nothing in the law or decree restricted the surviving spouse as the person married to the pensioner upon his death.
Diane Wilson responded that she is the surviving and dependent spouse based on the explicit meaning of the word “spouse”, which is defined as a person united to another person by marriage while alive and not divorced, and because they were married at the time of his death.
The city reinforced Diane Wilson’s position, saying that under the mandatory language of the law, the city council’s express intent was to ensure economic security for the surviving spouses of police officers.
A matter of first impression in RI
Justice Thunberg decided that “contrary to Marilyn’s argument…the term ‘spouse’ itself refers to a person who is lawfully married, not to a person who was previously lawfully married.”
“In addition, there is absolutely nothing in the language of the law or decree to indicate that the term ‘spouse’ should include the person’s ‘ex-spouse’ or ‘ex-spouse’,” the judge said.
The judge concluded that the state law and ordinance were clearly intended to provide financial support to the spouse or minor children of the deceased retiree at a time when they might be financially vulnerable.
The city maintained that the question of whether a final judgment of divorce could deny the surviving spouse a legally secured right to a pension is one of Rhode Island’s first impressions, but has not expressed any opinion to the contrary, according to the ruling.
Thunberg stressed that the property settlement agreement was incorporated, but not incorporated into the final judgment in Wilson’s divorce. Accordingly, she said, the agreement was not enforceable as a family court ruling, but instead, it was enforceable as a property settlement agreement entered into between Marilyn Wilson and Mike Wilson.
“Here, even assuming that the property settlement agreement grants Marilyn a surviving spouse’s benefit, such a clause would be void for violation of the clear mandate(s)” governing retiree benefits under state law and city ordinance, the ruling said.
“Furthermore, in contrast to Marilyn’s argument, the court’s decision will not destabilize the finality of divorce judgments or undermine the authority of the family court,” the judge wrote. “The court’s decision only reflects that a property settlement agreement that attempts to confer property on one of the spouses in violation of the law is ineffective.”
The judge ruled that “Notwithstanding the property settlement agreement and final judgment of divorce, Diane Wilson, not Marilyn Wilson, is the ‘surviving spouse’ and ‘dependent spouse’ of Mr. Wilson under the undisputed material facts of this case and in accordance with the manifest right.” and unmistakable language” of state law and city ordinance.