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In re Marriage of Shulga

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Fifth Division

September 30, 2019

In re MARRIAGE OF JODI SHULGA, Petitioner and Third-Party Petitioner-Appellee, and RONALD SHULGA, Respondent MARY KLEBBA-SHULGA, Third-Party Respondent-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 14 D 10594 Honorable Naomi H. Schuster, Judge Presiding.

          DELORT, JUSTICE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Hall and Rochford concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          DELORT, JUSTICE.

         ¶ 1 This dispute began as a standard divorce case between Jodi Shulga and her husband, Ronald Shulga. The case ran its natural course and terminated with a judgment for dissolution of marriage. After Ronald's death, Jodi filed a third-party complaint against Mary Klebba-Shulga, alleging that Mary was unjustly enriched because she was receiving a pension as the surviving spouse of a disabled firefighter pursuant to section 4-114 of the Illinois Pension Code (Code) (40 ILCS 5/4-114 (West 2016)). Jodi's complaint sought the imposition of a constructive trust. The circuit court granted the relief sought in Jodi's amended complaint, and Mary now appeals. We affirm.

         ¶ 2 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 On November 20, 2014, Jodi filed a petition for dissolution of marriage. The petition stated that when she and Ronald were married on May 19, 1991, Ronald was employed as a firefighter by the city of Evanston. The assets listed as property acquired during their marriage included real property located in Niles, Illinois; vehicles; bank accounts; and "Retirement plans." Ronald filed a pro se answer, which consisted of a single sentence: "Yes, I agree to a divorce from Jodi A. Shulga."

         ¶ 4 On April 12, 2016, the circuit court entered an order dissolving the marriage. The court's order incorporated a marital settlement agreement (MSA). Article V of the MSA, entitled "Marital Property, " provided in relevant part as follows:

"RONALD is currently a participant in the following accounts:
a. City of Evanston Pension Plan
JODI is awarded fifty percent (50%) of the marital portion of said accounts via a *** Qualified Illinois Domestic Relations Order (QILDRO) ***. The remaining balance after the disbursement delineated herein shall be awarded to RONALD as his sole and exclusive property, free and clear of any claim or interest by JODI. ***. Jodi and Ronald shall take all necessary actions to satisfy the foregoing conditions and to implement all of the provisions of this paragraph (including to amend the judgment to the extent necessary), and the Court hereby retains jurisdiction for the purpose of amending this judgment to the extent necessary to satisfy such condition and implement such provisions even after the death of one or both of the parties."

         ¶ 5 Ronald was first diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's small-cell lymphoma in early 2000. On July 26, 2016, Ronald applied for a line-of-duty disability pension from the Fund, claiming that his condition prevented him from continued service as a firefighter. Ronald was 55 years old at the time and had worked for the Evanston Fire Department since May 12, 1987.

         ¶ 6 Ronald married Mary in August 2016. On October 20, 2016, the circuit court entered a QILDRO that, among other things, directed the Evanston Firefighters' Pension Fund (the Fund) to pay Jodi 50% of Ronald's "Monthly Retirement Benefit" that he had accrued from the date of Ronald and Jodi's marriage until the date of the divorce. The QILDRO further provided that, so long as it was in effect, Ronald was prohibited from choosing "a form of payment of the retirement benefit that has the effect of diminishing the amount of the payment to which the alternate payee is entitled, " unless that alternate payee consented in writing and the consent was notarized and filed with the Fund. Both the MSA and the QILDRO are silent with respect to the allocation of any firefighter death benefits.

         ¶ 7 On May 11, 2017, the Board of Trustees of the Firefighters' Pension Fund of Evanston (the Board) issued an administrative decision on Ronald's application. The Board found that, due to his illness, Ronald had to stop working for the fire department on July 4, 2016. The Board concluded that Ronald was entitled to a line of duty disability pension benefit pursuant to section 4-110 of the Code (40 ILCS 5/4-110 (West 2016), but subject to any offsets pursuant to section 4-114.2 of the Code. The effective date of the award was fixed as August 1, 2017, a date when Ronald would have "exhausted any salary payments from [the City of Evanston]", but Ronald died on the same day as the Board issued its decision.

         ¶ 8 On May 15, 2017, Mary applied to the Fund for survivor benefits as Ronald's widow, and she began receiving 100% of the death benefits from the Fund, whereas Jody received none. Mary, who was married to Ronald for only nine months, ended up receiving benefits of $9, 169.53 per month as the surviving spouse of a disabled firefighter pursuant to section 4-114 of the Code (735 ILCS 5/4-114 (West 2016). By contrast, Jodi, who was married to him for nearly 25 years, received ...


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