NEW YORK – A Brooklyn police officer’s decision to name his girlfriend, who is a lieutenant, as his death-benefit beneficiary months before his suicide has pitted the women into a showdown.
NYPD community affairs officer Mike Smith, who was estranged from wife Elizabeth Ann Morehouse, killed himself on March 7, 2017 in his Manhattan Beach apartment. He took his life while his girlfriend, Lt. Zoya Golubeva, was breaking up with him, reported New York Post.
As Golubeva and her parents packed up her belongings in the bedroom, Smith handed Golubeva a piece of paper. It read, “I love you more than you’ll ever know.”
The Post reports that Smith, 48, then walked into the foyer, a few feet away, and shot himself in the forehead. He had filed for retirement days earlier.
Next to his body, according to an autopsy report, was a photo of the beautiful, blond, Russian-born Golubeva, 37. On a counter nearby, lay a “pension statement.”
That document is now at the heart of a simmering feud. Eleven months before his death, Smith had secretly changed his NYC Police Pension Fund beneficiary from his wife of 14 years to Golubeva.
As a consequence, the move barred his wife and their 14-year-old daughter from collecting his $810,000 death benefit.
“That money should go to my daughter — he’s her father,” Morehouse told The Post.
Beneficiary disputes over death benefits are a plague of pension systems, experts say.
“This kind of thing has gone on forever. It’s soap opera stuff all the time,” said John Murphy, a former executive director of NYCERS, the city’s biggest pension system.
It’s not unusual, he said, for pension members to change beneficiaries without telling their spouse. Such a move is not legally required, but certainly catches expectant beneficiaries by surprise to learn they’ve been replaced.
“They fall in love with someone else and want to leave the money to them” Murphy said.
Moreover, pension systems don’t have to notify a spouse when a member changes his or her beneficiary.
Morehouse learned about Smith changing his beneficiary to Golubeva because she opened an envelope from the pension fund addressed to her husband after he moved out, she said.
A state law gives some protection to disinherited spouses. Morehouse can seek to collect no more than a third of his pension benefits — about $270,000. She is filing a “right of election” claim for that sum in surrogate’s court. Golubeva can contest it, lawyers said.
Golubeva, a divorced mother of three, has a right to collect the rest — $540,000, experts said.
Nicole Giambarrese, the police pension fund’s general counsel, said the fund “is legally obligated to honor” a member’s designated beneficiary.
Shortly after Smith’s suicide, Golubeva told his siblings that she believed Smith’s daughter deserved the money, according to Smith’s sister Kathleen Carrano.
“She called it ‘blood money,’ and didn’t want any of it,” Carrano said.
But in the 16 months since Smith’s death, Golubeva has not indicated she will turn over any of the money, Morehouse said.
Golubeva, her parents and her kids had socialized with Smith’s siblings, to include Thanksgiving with them.
But soon after his suicide, Golubeva stopped communicating with Smith’s relatives, Carrano said.
Furthermore, the Smith’s say Golubeva holds Korean War medals awarded to Smith’s late father, which has caused more anguish. They say the medals have not been returned despite repeated requests.
“They’re really significant to our family. I don’t know what meaning they would have for her,” Carrano said.
The family is still struggling to understand why Smith, a popular cop in the 70th Precinct in Kensington for 23 years, would take his own life on the eve of his retirement.
“He was looking forward to getting a dog — even starting a dog-walking service — and going to the beach,” his sister said. “We didn’t pick up on any signs of depression.”
As a union delegate, Smith helped others cope with police suicides.
“He’d say, ‘Oh my god, there has to be another way,’” Morehouse said. “He believed in God and believed that suicide is wrong.”
Smith and Golubeva, who met when she worked briefly in the 70th Precinct, began dating after he left Morehouse in 2014, and had a tumultuous, on-and-off relationship, according to the family.
However, Morehouse and Smith never formally divorced. “We remained friends, and both loved our daughter,” she said.
Smith, who left no will, had no other assets, but named Morehouse beneficiary of a $250,000 life insurance policy.
Golubeva, who collected $142,438 in NYPD pay last fiscal year, stands to collect a sizable pension herself when she retires.
Smith’s teen daughter told The Post, “I miss my dad every day.”
As you might expect, she is unhappy that Golubeva can keep her father’s hard-earned cash.
“She was leaving Daddy. She wanted nothing to do with him. Why does she think she’s entitled to his money?” Morehouse said the teen has asked.
The New Post reached Golubeva by phone, but she declined to discuss Smith’s death.
Asked whether she will keep Smith’s pension benefits and his father’s war medals, Golubeva said, “I’ll have to get back to you,” before ending the conversation.