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ELEANORE STINNER v. DONALD E. STINNER (04/06/87)

filed: April 6, 1987.

ELEANORE STINNER, APPELLANT,
v.
DONALD E. STINNER, BETHLEHEM STEEL CORPORATION



Appeal from Order of the Court of Common Pleas, Civil Division, of Northampton County, Nos. 1979-C-7248 and 1979-CE-7249.

COUNSEL

Jackson M. Sigmon, Bethlehem, for appellant.

James R. Fiorentino, Bethlehem, for Stinner, appellee.

Wieand, Olszewski and Cercone, JJ.

Author: Wieand

[ 362 Pa. Super. Page 221]

The issue in this appeal is whether the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), as amended by the Retirement Equity Act of 1984 (REA),*fn1 permits the attachment of undistributed pension benefits to enforce a judgment recovered for breach of a pre-Divorce Code*fn2 agreement to pay alimony. The trial court held that such an attachment was not permitted and dismissed the writ. We affirm.

Eleanore Stinner and Donald Stinner were divorced on September 6, 1977. Prior thereto, on June 16, 1977, they had executed a written, property settlement agreement by the terms of which Husband agreed to pay Wife the sum of two hundred fifty ($250) dollars per week as alimony for and during the remainder of Wife's natural life or until she remarried. Husband made these payments until May 21, 1979, when he stopped and refused to make further payments.

On July 2, 1979, Wife filed a complaint in assumpsit alleging breach of contract by Husband. She also filed a separate action in equity seeking a decree enforcing the provisions of the agreement which provided for continuing alimony payments. Summary judgments were entered in favor of Wife on February 5, 1980. In the assumpsit action, judgment was entered in favor of Wife and against

[ 362 Pa. Super. Page 222]

Husband in the amount of $8,666.72. In the equity action, a decree was entered directing Husband to perform his agreement by paying $250 per week until Wife died or remarried. This order was affirmed on appeal without published opinion. Stinner v. Stinner, 296 Pa. Super. 645, 440 A.2d 1262 (1981). When Husband's default continued, Wife caused a writ of attachment to be issued against Husband's pension plan, naming as garnishee the "Bethlehem Steel Corporation Pension Plan for Salaried Employees."*fn3 The pension plan administrator denied that the pension plan was subject to attachment because the writ of execution was not a "qualified domestic relations order," which is necessary to permit an attachment of pension plan benefits under Section 206(d) of ERISA, as amended by REA, 29 U.S.C. § 1056(d). The dispute was submitted to the trial court on an agreed statement of facts, and the court, following argument, entered an order dismissing the writ of execution. Wife filed exceptions, but these were also dismissed. She then appealed to this Court.

Initially, we address the propriety of wife's filing exceptions. The procedural rules pertaining to the enforcement of money judgments are contained at Pa.R.C.P. 3101 et seq. They do not specifically require or provide for post-trial relief in the nature of exceptions. However, Pa.R.C.P. 3145(a) provides that, as far as practicable, the procedure between plaintiff and garnishee shall be the same as though "the interrogatories were a complaint and the answer of the garnishee were an answer in a civil action." Rule 3147, moreover, contemplates a trial to resolve factual issues raised by the pleadings. If we continue the analogy by applying generally the rules applicable to civil actions, there would seem to be no reason not to apply the post-trial motion provisions of Pa.R.C.P. 227.1 to litigation between a judgment creditor and a garnishee. We conclude, therefore,

[ 362 Pa. Super. Page 223]

    that appellant's motion for post-trial relief, even though mislabeled "exceptions," was procedurally proper.

The pension plan established by Bethlehem Steel Corporation is governed by ERISA. The language of ERISA, at 29 U.S.C. § 1144, provides that ERISA shall supersede any and all state laws insofar as they might otherwise pertain to employee benefit plans. As originally enacted, ERISA prohibited any assignment or alienation of pension benefits. In the years following enactment, however, there was substantial dissatisfaction with the harsh impact of ERISA in support cases. This dissatisfaction was particularly evident among the state courts which advocated exceptions to the non-alienability provisions of ERISA with respect to the enforcement of family support orders. In 1984, therefore, Congress enacted the REA amendment to ERISA. This amendment carved out a specific exception to the anti-alienation provisions to allow employee benefit plans to honor claims made pursuant to "qualified domestic relations orders." Under the REA amendment, pension benefits can be attached pursuant to a "qualified domestic relations order" issued by a state court.

The relevant language of ERISA, as amended by REA, is as follows:

(d) Assignment or alienation of plan benefits

(1) Each pension plan shall provide that benefits provided under the plan may not be ...


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