The Appellate Division issued an interesting unreported (non-precedential) opinion on November 20, 2008 in the case of Freda v. Freda wherein the Court found that it was error for the trial court to not equalize the parties’ Social Security benefits.
In this case, both parties were in their 70s and had been married for more than 50 years. Their means were limited and this was not an alimony case, as they are typically before the Courts. The wife, however, requested that their Social Security benefits be equalized so that post divorce they both had the same amount of money (the wife’s Social Security benefit was $797 and the husband’s was $1,400).
Typically, after 10 years of marriage, at a legally appropriate age to collect, a spouse is able to collect based upon their earning record or their spouse’s, whichever is higher. It is my understanding generally that when you collect on a spouse’s record, a recipient gets half of what the spouse’s entitled would be (this does not reduce the spouse’s entitled, however.)
The Appellate Division stated "We find the trial court’s decision unreasonable under the
circumstances of this case where, after fifty years of marriage, the parties should share equally in their joint income as well as their assets." As a result, the husband was ordered to pay the wife $300 per month as alimony
To view the full case, click here.
The wife’s request in this case was one that is seldom seen in these cases and I have heard arguments that such a claim could be preempted by Federal law. That said, if the amount of/right to receive Social Security is based upon earnings during a marriage, then like a pension, or for that matter any other asset acquired during the marriage, why should it not be divided too? Perhaps that the answer is that this is not an asset, but rather a right, but that said, the arguments are analogous. This is definitely food for thought in cases involving long term marriages.