This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1998).

STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
C7-99-1191

Jean E. Scott,
Appellant,

vs.

Minneapolis Police Relief Association, Inc.,
Respondent.

Filed December 21, 1999
Reversed
Klaphake, Judge

Hennepin County District Court
File No. 97-7728

Michael C. Black, 265 West 7th St., Suite 201, St. Paul, MN 55102 (for appellant)

C.J. Knippel, Rischmiller, Knippel & Aronson, 607 Marquette Ave., Suite 302, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for respondent)

Considered and decided by Randall, Presiding Judge, Klaphake, Judge, and Peterson, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N

KLAPHAKE, Judge

Jean Scott challenges the district court’s grant of summary judgment denying her surviving spouse benefits from her late husband’s pension. Because the district court erred in its interpretation of the statutory language governing her pension rights, we reverse.

D E C I S I O N

Where the facts are not in dispute, this court reviews the district court’s decision de novo to determine if the court erred in its application of the law. Washington v. Milbank Ins. Co., 562 N.W.2d 801, 804 (Minn. 1997). This matter turns on statutory construction, which is a question of law. State by Beaulieu v. RSJ, Inc., 552 N.W.2d 695, 701 (Minn. 1996). "The object of all interpretation and construction of laws is to ascertain and effectuate the intention of the legislature." Minn. Stat. § 645.16 (1998).

Scott’s late husband, a 35-year member of the Minneapolis police, began receiving benefits from the Minneapolis Police Relief Association (MPRA) upon his retirement in 1983. The Scotts, who were married in 1947, remained legally married until his death in 1995, although they lived apart for the last 16 years of the marriage. Scott’s application for surviving spouse benefits was denied based on the governing statute, which states:

The surviving spouse of a deceased service pensioner, * * * who was the legally married spouse of the decedent, residing with the decedent, and who was married while or before the time the decedent was on the payroll of the police department, and who, if the deceased member was a service or deferred pensioner, was legally married to the member for a period of at least one year before retirement from the police department, is entitled to a surviving spouse benefit.

Minn. Stat. § 423B.10, subd. 1(a) (1992).

The language of the statute refers repeatedly to the history of the marriage: "was the legally married spouse of the decedent, residing with decedent"; "was married while or before the time the decedent was on the payroll"; "was legally married to the member for a period of at least one year before retirement". Id. (emphasis added). Read in the context of the language preceding it, the "residing with the decedent" language merely modifies the phrase requiring the parties to be married. Further, to the extent that the "residing with the decedent" language is in a different tense than the other requirements, it is ambiguous. Using common language, as we must when construing statutes, it is clear that the statute merely requires the spouses to have lived together during the marriage, which undoubtedly is true for the Scotts. Minn. Stat. § 645.08(1) (1988). The Scotts were legally married and resided together for 31 years, while Mr. Scott was on the Minneapolis police department payroll.

A contrary interpretation of the "residing with the decedent" language would be inconsistent with legislative intent. By including the residency requirement, the legislature no doubt intended to deny pension benefits in the case of a sham marriage. The Scotts, however, were married for 31 years and raised three children to adulthood before separating; even then, they continued to file joint tax returns until his death. While the residency requirement seeks to deny benefits to those who marry for that purpose alone, it hardly furthers legislative goals to penalize those who may separate for a variety of legitimate reasons, including health, employment or any number of situations.

A review of other pension statutes reveals that when a residency at death requirement is intended, the statute is carefully worded to explicitly include the requirement. See, e.g., Minn. Stat. § 423.58, subd. 2 (1998) (police, cities of the 4th class: "residing with the member at the time of the member’s death"); Minn. Stat. § 424.24, subd. 2(a) (1998) (firefighters: "was residing with the member at the time of the member’s death"); Minn. Stat. § 424.001, subd. 6 (1998) (volunteer firefighters: "living with the member at the time of death"). We cannot read into a statute what "the legislature purposely omits or inadvertently overlooks." Ullom v. Independent Sch. Dist. No. 112, 515 N.W.2d 615, 617 (Minn. App. 1994) (quotations omitted).

Although chapter 423B has been revised three times since its adoption in 1992, no change has been made to clarify or revise the definition of surviving spouse, save for an amendment in 1997. This change added the provision that extends benefits to surviving spouses not otherwise qualified to receive benefits, because the spouses were not married during the active service of the member. Minn. Stat. § 423B.10, subd. 1(d) (Supp. 1997). This section specifically requires that the surviving spouse be "residing with the decedent at the time of death". Even with this qualifier, this represents an expansion of pension rights to surviving spouses, indicative of legislative intent to extend benefits rather than to limit them.[1]

MPRA argues that the definitional section, found at Minn. Stat. § 423B.01, subd. 12 (1992), contains an additional requirement that a surviving spouse does not include a person who has deserted the member or who is not dependent upon the member for support. When this section is read in conjunction with Minn. Stat. § 423B.10, subd. 1(a) & (d), the substantive surviving spouse sections, it is apparent that the definition section has not kept pace with the legislative changes. While the definitional section states that the spouse must not have deserted the member and must be dependent upon the member, it fails to define these terms. The substantive section makes no reference to either term. Minn. Stat. § 423B.01, subd. 12.

While a definitional section is usually intended to clarify a statutory provision, Minn. Stat. § 423B.01, subd. 12, has the opposite effect, blurring what is otherwise a bright line standard. The legislature intends a statute to be "effective and certain." Minn. Stat. § 645.17(2) (1998). In a time when many families rely on two working spouses, the dependency requirement is unreasonable, a result we must also presume the legislature did not intend. Id. at (1) (1998).

Further, the provisions of all laws are severable, unless otherwise noted. Minn. Stat. § 645.20 (1998). Without the definitional section, Minn. Stat. § 423B.10, subd. 1 retains the clarity it otherwise lacks when combined with Minn. Stat. § 423B.01, subd. 12.

Because we conclude the district court incorrectly interpreted the provisions of Minn. Stat. § 423B.10, subd. 1(a), we reverse.

Reversed.

[1] A similar proposed amendment was included in 1994 Minn. Laws. ch. 590, art. I, § 2, but it failed to win the requisite local approval.