October 26, 2012

Domestic Partnership

In law, much like life, close enough is sometimes not good enough. As the saying goes, close enough is only good in horse shoes or hand grenades. Although having played bocce ball and shuffleboard a few times, close enough does apply to those activities as well. Regardless, a recent California Court of Appeal decision held that close enough was not good enough for the beneficiary of a pension.

Burnham v Public Employees' Retirement Sys. (2012) 208 CA4th 1576

John Burnham had a pension through the California Public Employees' Retirement System (Cal PERS). In 2006, Mr. Burnham developed bone-metastasized prostate cancer. In that same year, he listed the beneficiary of his pension as the "Estate of James E. Burnham." Shortly thereafter in July 2006, Mr. Burnham retired. 

In October 2007, Mr. Burnham became extremely ill and the couple decided that they should register as domestic partners so that Ms. Honeyman would be entitled to take time off of work to care for Mr. Burnham. 

"Burnham and Honeyman signed the declaration of domestic partnership in their house at approximately 9:00 a.m. on Saturday, October 27, 2007, in front of a notary. At 4:30 p.m. Burnham died. He was 67 years old. The following Monday, October 29, 2007, Honeyman hand delivered the declaration of domestic partnership to the Secretary of State's Office in Fresno. The clerk filed it and the Secretary of State issued Burnham and Honeyman a certificate of registered domestic partnership dated October 29, 2007."

Ms. Honeyman then applied for Burnham's state pension survivor benefits. Following a number of decisions by Cal PERS and an administrative law judge, Cal PERS ultimately decided to award Ms. Burnham the pension benefits. The children of Mr. Burnham appealed this decision to Sacramento Superior Court, where the judge ruled in favor of the children. Ms. Honeyman then appealed the trial court's decision to the 3rd District Court of Appeal.

The children became involved because they would inherit the pension benefits if Ms. Honeyman was found not to have been Mr. Burnham's domestic partner. The reason being is that the children were Mr. Burnham's heirs if no domestic partnership existed. Naturally then, the children had an incentive to contest Ms. Honeyman's domestic partnership claim. 

One of Ms. Honeyman's arguments on appeal was that she was the domestic partner of Mr. Burnham. The fact that the declaration was filed after Mr. Burnham was irrelevant in her opinion because it was only a ministerial act. She believed that simply signing the declaration was sufficient to establish a domestic partnership. The filing aspect was merely a trivial formality.

In regards to her domestic partnership claim (she presented additional arguments as to why she should be awarded the pension), the Court of Appeal held that the plain language of the statute required that both parties appear when filing the declaration. In particular, Fam C § 297(b) states "a domestic partnership shall be established in California when both persons file a Declaration of Domestic Partnership with the Secretary of State pursuant to this division." Since it was impossible for the couple to file the declaration together, one of them was dead, they could not comply with the statute. Therefore, the couple was not considered a domestic partnership. The result was that the children were deemed the heirs of Mr. Burnham's estate (the Court of Appeal disagreed with Ms. Honeyman's other arguments).

The facts of this case are quite amazing. If Mr. Burnham had lived a few more days, the couple could have been able to file the declaration jointly, a domestic partnership would have been established and Ms. Honeyman would in all likelihood inherit Mr. Burnham's $100,000 pension benefits. Yet in reality, Mr. Burnham died almost immediately after signing the declaration, rendering it ostensibly useless. Unfortunately for Ms. Honeyman, close enough was not good enough and she was out $100,000 plus presumably thousands of dollars in attorney fees to litigate the matter at the trial court level and then appeal.