In re Marriage of Brown
15 Cal.3d 838, 126 Cal.Rptr. 633, 544 P.2d 561 (1976)

  • Robert and Gloria were married. Robert worked for a company that gave pension benefits, but only if you remained employed there for a certain number of years.
    • Robert had not worked long enough to have guaranteed (aka vested) pension benefits, but he was pretty close.
    • The value of the pension benefits were also dependent on how much longer Robert worked. If he retired at 63 he’d get less than if he stayed until he was 65.
  • Robert and Gloria got a divorce.
  • The Trial Court awarded Gloria a share of the marital property as well as spousal support. However, they determined that the unvested pension benefits were not property and therefore were not subject to division.
    • The Trial Court relied on French v. French (112 P.2d 235 (1941)), which found that unvested benefits are an expectancy, not property.
      • An expectancy is the interest of a person who foresees that he might receive a future benefit, like an inheritance from a person who hasn’t died yet. That person could change their will and give you nothing.
        • There is no enforceable right to an expectancy.
  • The California Supreme Court reversed.
    • The California Supreme Court overturned French and found that unvested benefits are a contingent property interest, not an expectancy, and are therefore subject to division upon dissolution of the marriage.
      • The Court found that pension benefits are a contractual right, and not a gift, so there is an enforceable right to them and therefore they are property.
    • The Court noted that if there was a real concern that the benefit would not vest, the courts could choose to reserve judgment and award the pension benefits at a point in the future (a pay-as-you-go distribution, as opposed to a lump sum distribution.)
      • That would be an administrative hassle, but would be perfectly legal.