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PATRICIA J. YOUNG v. JOHN M. YOUNG AND JULIE YOUNG (02/15/85)

SUPREME COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA


decided: February 15, 1985.

PATRICIA J. YOUNG, APPELLANT,
v.
JOHN M. YOUNG AND JULIE YOUNG, HIS WIFE, APPELLEES

No. 34 E.D. Appeal Docket 1984, Appeal from the Judgment entered October 7, 1983, Superior Court of Pennsylvania, at No. 4 Philadelphia 1982, Pa. Super. , Nix, C.j., and Larsen, Flaherty, McDermott, Hutchinson, Zappala and Papadakos, JJ. Zappala, J., filed a dissenting opinion in which Nix, C.j., and Flaherty, J., joined.

Author: Larsen

[ 507 Pa. Page 42]

OPINION OF THE COURT

Appellant Patricia Young and appellee John Young were divorced by the Superior Court of New Jersey on July 13, 1977, after twenty-nine years of marriage. During the marriage, appellee had worked as a police officer for the City of Easton, Pennsylvania, and certain amounts of money

[ 507 Pa. Page 43]

    had been deducted from his pay and deposited into the police pension fund established by the city. On July 10, 1978, the New Jersey court entered an order distributing the assets of the parties and providing, inter alia, for payment to appellant of one-half the amount which appellee receives from the police pension fund.*fn1 On October 30, 1978, the New Jersey court found appellee to be in arrears in his pension fund payments to appellant in the amount of $1,145.55 and held him in contempt of court. Subsequently, on April 29, 1980, the New Jersey court entered a judgment against appellee in the amount of $6,055.55.*fn2 On June 18, 1980, this judgment was certified in the Court of Common Pleas of Northampton County, and on November 4, 1980, the New Jersey orders regarding the parties' divorce and property distribution were "adopted" by the Court of Common Pleas.*fn3 The Court of Common Pleas then denied appellee's petition to modify the property distribution.*fn4

On June 8, 1981, appellant filed a petition seeking to "freeze" appellee's pension fund payments for her benefit. The Court of Common Pleas treated this as a request "to attach pension payments" and denied the petition. On appeal, the Superior Court affirmed. Young v. Young, 320 Pa. Super. 269,

[ 507 Pa. Page 44467]

A.2d 33 (1983). We granted allocatur and we now reverse.

Since this case involves only questions of law, we are not bound by the conclusions of the courts below: "[c]onclusions of law are always subject to our review on appeal . . . ." Fiore v. Fiore, 405 Pa. 303, 305, 174 A.2d 858, 859 (1961). Accordingly, we may fully consider the questions of statutory interpretation presented for our review. See Commonwealth, Higher Education Assistance Agency v. Abington Memorial Hospital, 478 Pa. 514, 521, 387 A.2d 440, 443 (1978) (opinion in support of affirmance) (citation omitted) ("Undoubtedly questions of statutory interpretation . . . are for the courts to resolve . . . .'").

The pension fund from which appellee draws his pension was created by the City of Easton pursuant to provisions of the Third Class City Code, Act of June 23, 1931, P.L. 932, as amended, 53 P.S. § 35101 et seq.*fn5 That act provides that

The compensation or pension herein mentioned shall not be subject to attachment or execution, and shall be payable

[ 507 Pa. Page 45]

    only to the beneficiary designated, and shall not be subject to assignment or transfer.

53 P.S. § 39351.*fn6

The only issue presented in this appeal is whether the funds in appellee's police pension are subject to attachment.*fn7 More specifically, we must decide whether a spouse -- either present or former -- who seeks to enforce orders, whose essential purpose is to provide support for that spouse, may attach the police pension of the other spouse -- either present or former.*fn8

[ 507 Pa. Page 46]

In defining the scope of the exemption from attachment granted by 53 P.S. § 39351, we are guided by the Statutory Construction Act of 1972, 1 Pa.C.S.A. § 1501 et seq. That act provides that the object of all statutory construction is to ascertain the intent of the legislature, and that the legislature's intent may be ascertained by considering the necessity for the statute, the mischief to be remedied, the object to be attained, and the consequences of a particular interpretation; that the legislature does not intend a result that is unreasonable, and intends to favor the public interest over any private interest; and that statutes such as 53 P.S. § 39351 "shall be liberally construed to effect their objects and to promote justice." 1 Pa.C.S.A. §§ 1921(a), (c)(1), (3), (4), (6); 1922(1), (5); 1928(c).

In accordance with the provisions of the Statutory Construction Act, we note initially that pensions created pursuant to 53 P.S. § 39301, such as the one in this case,

[ 507 Pa. Page 47]

    exist for the benefit of retired or disabled police officers, their surviving spouses, and their children under the age of eighteen. See 53 P.S. § 39301. Thus, the purpose of the exemption statute, 53 P.S. § 39351, is to protect pension funds from the claims of creditors, for the benefit of police officers and their families.*fn9 Cf. Resolute Insurance Company v. Pennington, 423 Pa. 472, 477, 224 A.2d 757, 760 (1966) ("The rationale behind laws exempting insurance proceeds from the claims of creditors is to encourage individuals to provide for their families and dependents."); Commonwealth ex rel. Deutsch v. Deutsch, 347 Pa. 66, 68, 31 A.2d 526, 527 (1943) ("[T]he exemption of wages from seizure by creditors was designed largely for the very purpose of supplying the wants of wife and children . . . ."). See also Fowler v. Fowler, 116 N.H. 446, 362 A.2d 204, 205, 93 A.L.R.3d 705 (1976) ("Retirement funds . . . are created for the protection of not only the employee, but for the protection of his family as well. Hence, the provisions exempting assignments and attachments contained therein are to relieve the person exempted from the pressure of claims that are hostile to his and to his dependents' essential needs.").

In addition, we note that Pennsylvania has long had a policy giving priority to the enforcement of support orders. Both the legislature and this Court have created procedures specifically designed to accomplish this policy.*fn10

[ 507 Pa. Page 48]

The Superior Court has reached the same conclusion in two cases with facts similar to the facts of this case. Most recently, in Hopkinson v. Hopkinson, 323 Pa. Super. 404, 470 A.2d 981 (1984), petition for allowance of appeal denied (May 7, 1984), the Superior Court had to consider whether a private pension fund protected by the exemption found in 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8124(b) could be attached in order to satisfy a judgment for arrearages arising from the former husband's obligation to support his former wife and their two children. The Superior Court concluded:

If the purpose of exemption clauses, like the one in [42 Pa.C.S.A.] section 8124(b), is to prevent the dissipation of one's pension so that he can support his family, then to prevent an attachment, whose purpose is to discharge the same obligation that the exemption clause was created to protect, would be unjust . . . . Accordingly, we hold that in this instance, in an effort to satisfy familial support obligations, the husband's share of the professional corporation's pension and profit sharing plans are not exempt from attachment under 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8124(b).

323 Pa. Superior Ct. 417, 470 A.2d at 988.

In another case, the Superior Court was asked to decide whether a husband's private pension, which was protected by an exemption provided by 40 P.S. § 515, could be attached in order to satisfy the husband's obligation to support his wife. Commonwealth ex rel. Magrini v. Magrini, 263 Pa. Super. 366, 398 A.2d 179 (1979). The Superior Court held that the pension could be attached, stating:

Clearly, these types of statutes were specifically drawn to protect the beneficiary's family so he (or she) could not voluntarily or by means of creditor judgments, dissipate the assets and leave his family without a means of support. In view of this, we decline to interpret the Act

[ 507 Pa. Page 50]

    of 1917 [40 P.S. § 515] . . . to protect a delinquent husband's pension funds from attachment for support.

263 Pa. Superior Ct. 370-371, 398 A.2d at 181.*fn12

The additional factors set forth in the Statutory Construction Act also support this holding. First, we note that a family loses its ability to spend a portion of its income when that income is deferred and placed in a pension. It would be terribly unfair to read an exemption statute, which was created to protect a pension for the benefit of a retired employee's family, in such a way that the exemption would bar children or a former spouse from receiving support from the very fund created for their benefit, and would once again deny them the benefits of the income they sacrificed to a pension years before. We do not believe that the legislature intended to create such an unreasonable result when it enacted 53 P.S. § 39351.

Further, by interpreting 53 P.S. § 39351 to allow the attachment of pensions in cases such as this, we favor the public interest over private interests. Our interpretation forces individuals to be responsible for their obligations and does not permit them to hide behind the shield of a statutory exemption. It also protects the public from having to assume the responsibility of supporting family members when individuals refuse to comply with court orders to provide support.

[ 507 Pa. Page 51]

Finally, our interpretation of 53 P.S. § 39351 promotes justice between the parties in this case. Appellant has been entitled to receive one-half of appellee's pension payments since 1977 as part of the equitable distribution of the parties' assets; yet to date, appellant has received none of the funds to which she is entitled. Appellee has no right to ignore a court order, and we will not permit him to do so any longer.

The order of the Superior Court is reversed and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

ZAPPALA, Justice, dissenting.

I dissent.

Legislative interpretation is controlled by the Statutory Construction Act*fn1 which sets forth the polestar for determining legislative intent:

(b) When the words of a statute are clear and free from all ambiguity, the letter of it is not to be disregarded under the pretext of pursuing its spirit.

1 Pa.C.S.A. § 1921(b). See In re Estate of Fox, 494 Pa. 584, 431 A.2d 1008 (1981); Black v. Billy Penn Corp., 72 Pa. Commw. 628, 457 A.2d 192 (1983); Shestack v. General Braddock Area School District, 63 Pa. Commw. 204, 437 A.2d 1059 (1981).

The statute in question states:

The compensation or pension herein mentioned shall not be subject to attachment or execution, and shall be payable only to the beneficiary designated, and shall not be subject to assignment or transfer. (Emphasis added).

53 P.S. § 39351.

The majority creates an ambiguity in this statute by its interpretation of the enforcement provisions of our support

[ 507 Pa. Page 52]

    statutes (See 48 P.S. § 136 and Pa.R.Civ.P. 1910.22) and exemption statute (See 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8124(b)). Nothing in these provisions creates such an ambiguity. Section 136 specifically provides for attachment of trusts, not otherwise subject to attachment, while Rule 1910.22 speaks generally of wages, salaries and commissions. Likewise, I take exception to the majority's reliance upon 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8124(b), in that section 8124(b) is as explicit as § 39351 of the Third Class City Code, in exempting pension plans from attachment or execution. For this reason, I would not adopt the reasoning of the Superior Court in Hopkinson v. Hopkinson, 323 Pa. Super. 404, 470 A.2d 981 (1984) anymore than I agree with the majority in the present case.

Thus, I find no ambiguity, either within the pension statute itself or in conjunction with the support statutes or exemption statutes, which permits the majority to undertake the task of determining the "spirit" of the law in derogation of its obvious meaning.*fn2


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