It’s not a soap opera — it’s a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In writing Monday for She the People on Hillman v. Maretta involving the question of whether the widow or the ex-wife would receive the benefits from a federal life insurance policy, I wondered about the human details behind the law. So had some of those sharing comments on the post.
The daughter of Warren Hillman — the deceased employee whose federal life insurance benefits are being contested — saw the blog and contacted me through Twitter. We talked about her father and what happened; it wasn’t what I had expected. Here’s her story, but keep in mind that what follows is one side (I was unable to contact Judy Maretta.)
It turns out that the ex-wife and the widow are wives No. 2 and No. 3, but her dad admitted he was embarrassed to think he’d been married three times, Adler told me.
She and her two brothers, who all live in the D.C. area, are the children of Hillman’s first marriage, which lasted 16 years until it ended in divorce. There are nine grandchildren. In 1989, Hillman married Judy Maretta, who was his boss at GSA. He’d previously been a budget analyst with OMB.
In 1996, he filled out a simple form to designate the beneficiary for his group life insurance policy governed under the Federal Employees’ Group Life Insurance Act (FEGLIA). He named Maretta, his wife at the time, but they divorced two years later.
“It was not amicable,” Adler told me, and the two had “no contact after that.”
A few years later, he met Jacqueline – or Jackie, as Adler calls her, and they married in 2002. Hillman retired; the two traveled frequently. “They had a wonderful marriage and were very happy,” Adler said. She takes comfort in that.
In 2008, after returning home from a trip to Turkey, Hillman became ill. He was diagnosed with leukemia and died just days later at age 66. As you might expect, it was a “tumultuous” time for the family while dealing with her father’s unexpected death.
“Jackie reached out to Judy …and let her know,” Adler said. Maretta attended the funeral and was invited to the unveiling, a Jewish custom a year after the death.
She didn’t show up. No one heard from her.
In the meantime, Hillman’s will had “left everything” to Jackie and nothing to Maretta, but the family had learned that there was “a problem” with the life insurance policy. The company assured Hillman’s widow that there was no need to worry. “They said to wait a year and when it went unclaimed, she would collect the money,” Adler explained.
Except Maretta claimed it during that year and was paid $124,588.03.
Jackie Hillman could have used that money, Adler said, for her mortgage and other expenses; she ended up selling the house and moving to an apartment and continues to work part-time.
“Everybody knew he never would have wanted Judy to have the money,” Adler told me.
Enter the lawyers. Jackie Hillman, believing she, as the widow, was entitled to the money, sued to recover the benefits under the Commonwealth of Virginia’s statute that revokes a divorced spouse as a life insurance beneficiary in favor of the widow or widower.
She won the case in Fairfax County Circuit Court, which awarded her the FEGLI life insurance benefits received by Maretta. Then the ex-wife appealed the decision to the Virginia Supreme Court; it reversed the lower court’s ruling on the basis that other federal insurance programs preempt state law, according to previous U.S. Supreme Court decisions, such as Wissner v. Wissner and Ridgway v. Ridgway.
Jackie Hillman decided to pursue the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear oral arguments Monday.
Adler attended the proceedings and admits that, under the law, the outcome doesn’t look favorable for her father’s widow. Although several of the justices did question the attorneys about what Hillman’s intent was, the case won’t be decided on what he wanted.
Tejinder Singh, writing for scotusblog.com, summed up the argument with the title of his post: “Looking for the less wrong answer.” He said whether “FEGLIA’s order of precedence is solely designed for the administrative convenience of federal plan administrators (in which case the state law likely would not be preempted), or instead reflects a more robust congressional agenda to ensure that the insured’s choice of beneficiary would be honored so that designated beneficiaries not only receive, but also keep, life insurance proceeds (in which case the state law almost certainly would be preempted).”
The transcript of the arguments is more entertaining than you might think; my favorite comment came from Justice Samuel Alito: “State domestic relations law leads to a lot of nasty and difficult disputes — you know, ‘Bleak House.’ ” He wondered whether Congress, believing that, tried to simplify the beneficiary process.
He also elicited laughter when he said no one had ever reminded him, in his many years on the bench, to update his beneficiary form.
Adler said her father’s widow believes she’s done everything she can now.
Had it been an insurance policy issued through a private company, there would have been no problem, Adler said.“It’s easy to say he should have kept it up to date,” she said. “It was an oversight.”
“That particular piece of paper will get the last word,” Adler said.
Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.