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Sneddon v. State Employees' Retirement Sys.

OPINION FILED MARCH 30, 1979.

CAROLYN SUE SNEDDON, ADM'R OF THE ESTATE OF GEORGE WARREN SNEDDON, DECEASED, INDIV. AND AS MOTHER AND NEXT FRIEND OF MARK WARREN SNEDDON, A MINOR, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

THE STATE EMPLOYEES' RETIREMENT SYSTEM OF ILLINOIS ET AL., DEFENDANTS. — (THE STATE EMPLOYEES' RETIREMENT SYSTEM OF ILLINOIS, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.)



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Sangamon County; the Hon. JAMES T. LONDRIGAN, Judge, presiding.

MR. JUSTICE GREEN DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Rehearing denied May 4, 1979.

Plaintiff Carolyn Sue Sneddon appeals from an order, entered on administrative review in the circuit court of Sangamon County, which affirmed a decision of the Board of Trustees of the defendant State Employees' Retirement System (the System) denying plaintiff's claim for a "survivors annuity" as the widow of a State employee who was a member of the System.

All evidence was heard by the System's claims committee. At the first hearing, the parties stipulated to the following relevant facts: The most recent beneficiary form executed by George Warren Sneddon, the deceased, was dated January 4, 1966, and nominated as beneficiaries his three sons by a prior marriage, defendants George W. Sneddon, Jr., Gary Lee Sneddon, and Scott Allen Sneddon. The deceased married plaintiff on December 31, 1970, and their son, Mark Warren Sneddon, was born June 29, 1971. Plaintiff and the deceased were divorced on August 17, 1971, but remarried on December 31, 1975. The deceased died on July 14, 1976.

Also at the first hearing, plaintiff testified that in the interim between her divorce from the deceased and subsequent remarriage to him, they continued "going together" and living together. During that period, the deceased supported their child (pursuant to the divorce decree) and her (voluntarily but not on a regular basis). At a later hearing, the committee heard additional evidence not relevant to this appeal.

Based on the facts contained in the stipulation and other evidence presented at the hearings, the claims committee found that plaintiff did not meet the definition of a survivors annuity beneficiary as stated in section 14-160(a)(1) of the Illinois Pension Code (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 108 1/2, par. 14-160(a)(1)). The System's Board of Trustees voted to accept the committee's findings and its recommendation that plaintiff's claim be denied.

At the time of the death of plaintiff's husband, section 14-160(a)(1) provided,

"(a) A survivors annuity beneficiary means:

(1) a wife or husband of a member or annuitant, if the marriage with the member was in effect at least 1 year at the date of the member's death, or at least 1 year at the date of his withdrawal, whichever first occurs." (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 108 1/2, par. 14-160.) (Emphasis added.)

Plaintiff contends that the classification of spouses into those married less than one year before the member's death and those married one year or more is unconstitutional because it is unreasonable, arbitrary and contrary to public policy. Plaintiff does not contend that this distinction is a "suspect" classification which would be subject to "strict scrutiny" and judged by the "compelling interest" test. Rather, this classification is subject to the following standard stated in Grasse v. Dealer's Transport Co. (1952), 412 Ill. 179, 193-94, 106 N.E.2d 124, 132, and later applied in Laffoon v. Bell & Zoller Coal Co. (1976), 65 Ill.2d 437, 444, 359 N.E.2d 125, 128-29:

"`For these classifications to be deemed constitutional, as in all cases involving classifications, it must appear that the particular classification is based upon some real and substantial difference in kind, situation or circumstance in the persons or objects on which the classification rests, and which bears a rational relation to the evil to be remedied and the purpose to be attained by the statute, otherwise the classification will be deemed arbitrary and in violation of the constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection of the laws.'"

• 1 We believe that the classification here meets that standard. Here, the evil to be remedied is the conscious adverse risk selection of "deathbed" marriages whereby a terminally ill member of the System marries another to enable that person to become eligible for benefits. The one-year marriage requirement, designed to prevent this abuse of the pension system, is based on a difference in situation or circumstance and bears a rational relation to the purpose of the statute.

Plaintiff next contends that she should be allowed to "tack" the 7 1/2 months of her first marriage to decedent to the 6 1/2 months of their second marriage in order to meet the one-year requirement of section 14-160(a)(1). She argues that the language of the statute is vague and ambiguous and thus should be liberally construed in favor of those who are to benefit under it. People ex rel. Anastasia v. Civil Service Com. (1973), 10 Ill. App.3d 583, 295 N.E.2d 127; Giuliano v. Board of Trustees (1967), 89 Ill. App.2d 126, 231 N.E.2d 257.

• 2, 3 We agree that a pension statute should be liberally construed in favor of the claimants but, as stated in Anastasia and Giuliano, we should not disregard the plain language of the statute. Here, the phrase, "the marriage," obviously refers to the status of a couple existing under a particular marriage contract. Thus, a status existing under another ...


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