Appellant, Linda Darleen Weiand, brought an action under the Declaratory Judgment Act, KRS 418.040, in which she challenged the refusal of the Kentucky Employee Retirement System (KERS) to allow her to receive benefits from her ex-husband's retirement account upon his death. The trial court found for KERS and Weiand appealed. The Court of Appeals affirmed. We granted discretionary review and affirm both the Court of Appeals and the trial court.
Darleen married Steven Weiand on July 14, 1973. The couple was still married when Steven retired from the City of Louisville Police Department on April 1, 1988. Prior to retiring, Steven elected to receive retirement benefits from KERS under the "Survivorship 100%" option. This option guarantees a monthly benefit to the member for life. Upon the member's death, the designated beneficiary is eligible to receive the same monthly benefit for life. Steven named Darleen as his beneficiary and began receiving benefits in April, 1988.
Darleen and Steven separated in July, 1988. They entered into a Marital Settlement Agreement in February, 1989. The agreement clarified that nothing contained within it was intended to alter Darleen's rights as Steven's named beneficiary to receive his pension benefits should he predecease her. After their divorce was finalized on February 21, 1989, Steven and Darleen submitted a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO), which incorporated the terms of the Marital Settlement Agreement, to KERS for approval. KERS notified Steven and Darleen that it could not approve the QDRO because the divorce decree terminated Darleen's status as Steven's beneficiary pursuant to KRS 61.542(2)(b).
KRS 61.542(2)(b), as it was in effect at the time Steven elected the "Survivorship 100%" option, provides:
1986 Ky. Acts Ch. 90 § 9.
Subsequent to this Court's grant of discretionary review, Steven died on April 8, 2000. Upon his death, KERS made his estate the beneficiary pursuant to the above statute.
Darleen makes multiple attacks on the trial court's order and the Court of Appeals' opinion. She argues: (1) KERS's interpretation of KRS 61.542(2)(b) is contrary to the legislative intent and the plain meaning of the statute; (2) KERS is estopped from denying Darleen status as Steven's beneficiary; and (3) KERS's construction of KRS 61.542(2)(b) violates the United States Constitution's Equal Protection, Due Process and Takings Clauses under the Fourteenth and Fifth Amendments.
KRS 61.542(2)(b) provides in pertinent part: "The estate of the retired member becomes the beneficiary . . . if the retired member has designated a spouse and they were divorced on the date of the retired member's death." (Emphasis added). Darleen argues that under the plain language of this statute, the estate becomes the beneficiary only if the retired member and the beneficiary-spouse get a divorce on the actual date of the retired member's death. This argument assumes that the word "divorced" in the statute refers to the act of getting divorced, e.g., q: Are you married? a: No. I got divorced a
Therefore, we agree with both the Court of Appeals and the trial court that, under KRS 61.542(2)(b), the estate becomes the beneficiary if the retired member and the beneficiary-spouse have the status of being divorced from each other on the date of the retired member's death.
Darleen next argues that KERS should be estopped from denying her beneficiary status.
As stated in Electric and Water Plant Board of City of Frankfort v. Suburban Acres Development, Inc., Ky., 513 S.W.2d 489 (1974):
Id. at 491 (internal quotation marks omitted).
Darleen argues that the Summary Plan Description KERS provided the Weiands did not put them on notice that Darleen would lose her beneficiary status if she and Steven divorced while he was "in pay" status, which occurred after the state treasurer drew Steven's first retirement check. The Summary Plan Description provides the following description for the "Survivorship 100%" option, which Steven chose:
Darleen argues that this description is either a false representation or a concealment of material facts. She further argues that this description breaches KERS's statutory duty under KRS 61.540(2) to draft a Summary Plan Description in a manner calculated to be understood by both members and beneficiaries alike and to be "sufficiently accurate and comprehensive to reasonably apprise [members and beneficiaries] of their rights and obligations under the provisions of KRS 16.505 to 16.652, 61.510 to 61.705 and 78.510 to 78.852." In addition, she argues that the Summary Plan Description provided Steven by KERS violated its statutory obligation under KRS 61.540(3)(f) to include in the plan a "reasonable list of circumstances which would result in disqualification, ineligibility, or denial or loss of benefits."
Equitable estoppel cannot be invoked against a governmental entity, except in unique circumstances where the court finds exceptional and extraordinary equities involved. Urban Renewal and Community Development Agency of Louisville v. International Harvester Company of Delaware, Ky., 455 S.W.2d 69, 72 (1970). Further, estoppel is a question
The trial court concluded on this issue that "the equities involved in this case are not so extraordinary as to warrant a finding of estoppel." In support of this finding, the trial court found: (1) another section of the Summary Plan Description clearly states that an employee should not rely solely upon the limited language contained in the Plan in determining which option to choose; (2) the Plan also states that, if the Plan and the controlling statutes are in conflict, the statutes will be the final authority; (3) the Plan also states that a final divorce decree voids a spouse's designation as beneficiary unless the member re-designates the spouse after the decree has been issued; (4) further, the Plan recommends that each member discuss his retirement options with a retirement benefits counselor prior to making a choice, because a member may not change his or her beneficiary after the first retirement check is issued; and (5) no one at KERS affirmatively advised the Weiands that a divorce subsequent to Steven's benefit option would not affect Darleen's beneficiary status.
The findings of a trial judge sitting without jury may not be set aside unless clearly erroneous. Lawson v. Loid, Ky., 896 S.W.2d 1, 3 (1995); CR 52.01. Upon review of the trial court's findings of fact on this issue, we cannot say its ultimate finding of no equitable estoppel was clearly erroneous.
Finally, Darleen argues that KERS's construction of KRS 61.542(2)(b) violates the United States Constitution's Equal Protection, Due Process and Takings Clauses under the Fourteenth and Fifth Amendments.
"The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment commands that no State shall `deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws,' which is essentially a direction that all persons similarly situated should be treated alike." Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, 473 U.S. 432, 439, 105 S.Ct. 3249, 3254, 87 L.Ed.2d 313, 320 (1985). As a general rule, a statute is presumed valid and will survive an equal protection challenge if it can be shown that the classification drawn by the statute is rationally related to a legitimate state interest. Id., 473 U.S. at 440, 105 S.Ct. at 3254, 87 L.Ed.2d at 320. However, if the challenged statute classifies by race, alienage or national origin or impinges on a fundamental right, the statute is subject to strict scrutiny and only survives an equal protection challenge if it can be shown that the statute is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest. Id. There is an intermediate, heightened standard of review which is normally applied to classifications based on gender and illegitimacy. Id., 473 U.S. at 440-41, 105 S.Ct. at 3254-55, 87 L.Ed.2d. at 320-21.
Darleen argues that we should apply strict scrutiny to our review of the statute in question because it classifies based on divorce. Darleen notes that marriage is a fundamental right and laws that impinge upon that right are subject to strict scrutiny. Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1, 87 S.Ct. 1817, 18 L.Ed.2d 1010 (1967). Thus, she argues that divorce likewise should be considered a fundamental right. The ability to obtain a divorce has not heretofore been declared a fundamental constitutional right and is a dubious proposition. However, we have no call to decide the issue as the statute does not impinge upon Darleen's ability to obtain a divorce.
Statutes and regulatory schemes that do not significantly interfere with the right to enter into marriage are
As the trial court has articulated a perfectly reasonable basis for the classification, we hold that the statute does not violate Darleen's right to equal protection.
DUE PROCESS AND TAKINGS
We do not believe that we can improve on the reasoning of the trial court on this issue and adopt it as our own:
Trial Order, Weiand v. Board of Trustees of Kentucky Retirement Systems, 91-CI-1103 at 8 (Franklin Circuit Court, Div. II, April 7, 1998).
For the reasons set forth above, the opinion of the Court of Appeals is hereby affirmed.
COOPER, GRAVES, KELLER, STUMBO, and WINTERSHEIMER, JJ., concur.
LAMBERT, C.J., dissents by separate opinion.
LAMBERT, Chief Justice, dissenting.
Judge Schroder's dissenting opinion in the Court of Appeals well expresses my view as to the proper resolution of this case. As such, I adopt and publish herewith Judge Schroder's dissenting opinion: