The D.C. Court of Appeals ruled yesterday in a precedent-setting decision that government pensions earned by a spouse can be considered part of a couple's joint marital property and can be equally divided by the court in divorce proceedings.
The ruling, which brings the District into conformity with jurisdictions across the country, was seen by attorneys as a major victory for groups that advocate the rights of women who are non-wage-earning housewives.
Under the rulings, a man is also entitled to a share of his wife's pension.
"I'm extremely pleased. I think it's a wonderful decision," said Edith U. Fierst, an attorney who represented a woman who sought part of her former husband's pension benefits in one of two cases decided by the court yesterday. "It means that the work that a woman does at home counts for something."
Both cases involved men who worked for the federal government. The three-member appeals panel upheld a lower court ruling that the men must share the proceeds of their pensions equally with their former wives.
The appellate decisions, both written by Judge James A. Belson, are expected to have wide-ranging impact on divorce settlements in the city.
"It's most important for spouses who've not been employed," said Marna Tucker, a prominent D.C. divorce attorney. "These people usually get peanuts for alimony, and they're not eligible for Social Security."
The court ruled that "pensions have become an increasingly important part of an employe's compensation package, and often . . . represent the single most valuable asset acquired during the marriage."
Congress amended the Civil Service Act in 1978 to allow state courts to apply local laws designating pensions as part of a couple's joint property.
Yesterday's rulings left unclear the precise manner by which pension benefits are to be divided. It is expected that the lower court will devise its own formulas for determining if payment should be in lump sums, or over extended periods of time.