Pension Board Says Fallen Cop's Kid Can't Get Benefits Because Parents Divorced
Glenview, IL – The son of an almost 20-year police veteran who died on duty has been denied survivors benefits for almost five years now because his parents were divorced when his father died.
Glenview Police Officer Owen Masterton’s name was added to the National Law Enforcement Memorial wall on May 16, 2019 while the village he served for nearly 20 years was, at the same time, spending tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to get out of paying death benefits to the officer’s surviving child, the Glenview Patch reported.
Officer Masterton died of a heart attack during roll call for the overnight shift at his police station on Dec. 6, 2014.
He had worked a 14-hour shift the prior day that included a stressful dispute call, and attended the department’s holiday party, before checking on for the overnight shift, the Glenview Patch reported.
Officer Masterton collapsed in his chair and other officers began CPR while they waited for medics.
He was pronounced dead at a local hospital about an hour later, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.
Officer Masterton left behind a 10-year-old son. He and the boy’s mother had been divorced for less than a year when he had the heart attack, according to the Glenview Patch.
"He was a fine officer," Glenview Police Chief William Fitzpatrick said at the time of his death. "He served this community for more than 19 years and was well respected among his peers."
The state of Illinois’ pension code specifically says that any "police officer who suffers a heart attack or stroke as a result of the performance and discharge of police duty shall be considered as having been injured in the performance of an act of duty,” the Glenview Patch reported.
But Glenview’s pension board never made a ruling that Officer Masterton’s death was considered line of duty.
In fact, they voted 3-2 to dismiss the matter on Feb. 1, 2018 and said that the officer’s minor son would have had to be a “surviving spouse” to get Officer Masterton’s death benefits, the Glenview Patch reported.
The officer’s former wife was outraged that the pension board was trying to get out of supporting her son because she and his father were no longer married.
"It's ridiculous that they would think that an officer who's not married — it doesn't matter how they get killed — the fact of the matter is that if they're not married, Illinois wouldn't consider that a line of duty death," ex-wife Kelly Masterton said. "It's ridiculous. It's preposterous. Nobody would ever say that. Like somebody could get shot in the head and your first question is, 'Oh, was he married?'"
The non-line of duty benefit provided to Masterton's son shorts the boy about $371,000 of what he is due from the pension board, the Glenview Patch reported.
Also, because the death wasn’t ruled line of duty by Officer Masterton’s department, the pension is taxable.
Kelly Masterton said that means her son would be given about 25 percent of what he would have received if the pension board had ruled that his father had died during the course of his duties.
The ruling also prevented Officer Masterton’s son from qualifying for grants from nonprofit foundations who support fallen officers’ families.
Kelly Masterton told the Glenview Patch that also meant her son had missed out on participating in summer camps with specialized counseling for kids up to age 14 who have a dead officer as parent.
So in March of 2018, she filed a lawsuit on her son’s behalf that alleged the Glenview pension board's decision was in conflict with a clear reading of the law and the intent of the legislators who drafted it, according to Glenview Patch.
Kelly Masterton asked the judge to reverse the pension board’s decision and to find that her ex-husband’s death had been in the line of duty.
State law clearly lays out a hierarchy for benefit distribution, the Glenview Patch reported.
Surviving spouses get benefits unless they remarry or die, in which case the benefits go to any unmarried dependent children of the officer. In the case of an officer who has no spouse or children, the benefits go to dependent parents.
Attorney David Stepanich argued that lawmakers would never have intended the outcome the Glenview pension board voted for in Officer Masterton’s case, according to the Glenview Patch.
"The court should understand very clearly what the board is suggesting: that the fact that this police officer died in the line of duty but was not married means that his surviving dependent child, who is under age and presumably is in far greater need of funds for his future having lost his father, is simply out of luck due to the legislature not repeating the same language [regarding order of succession for benefits]," Stepanich wrote. "[T]he spirit and purpose of the Act dictate otherwise. How is one to tell a dependent child, who is after all dependent, the fact that his parents are divorced, another difficult fact of the dependent child's life, that he is therefore not entitled to the same money that another child would be under the circumstances."
He said it was clear what lawmakers meant in the statute.
"It should not go without noting that as the Glenview Police Pension Board continues to attempt to put up roadblocks to deprive a minor child of benefits to which he may be entitled while he is still a minor, time is being lost and he is harmed by not having the additional funds available," Stepanich argued. "[T]he legislature's reference to 'survivors' and line of duty benefits should be controlling and demolish the Glenview Police Pension Board's cynical and specious argument."
Cook County Associate Judge David Atkins agreed with Kelly Masterton’s lawsuit and kicked the case back to the Glenview pension board, the Glenview Patch reported.
"The court presumes the legislature did not intend these results,” Atkins wrote.
But the village refused to meet with Kelly Masterton and instead filed an appeal, the Glenview Patch reported.
They argued the pension board didn’t have the authority to change the survivor benefits because more than 35 days had passed and that line of duty benefits couldn’t be awarded to unmarried children.
But a judge denied the village’s petition for leave to appeal in May, shortly after it was filed, the Glenview Patch reported.
Stepanich said he did not expect the pension board to put down their sword and said he was preparing for a costly hearing process followed by more appeals.
If the matter is determined before Officer Masterton’s son turns 18, he would still be eligible to receive the difference in benefits he has been shorted since his father’s death in 2014, the Glenview Patch reported.