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Minnesota appeals court awards slain Cloquet Marine's benefits to mother

CLOQUET -- Loretta Angell said that the wishes of her Marine Corps son -- who was killed in combat in Iraq -- were honored by a Minnesota Court of Appeals decision released on Tuesday.

The appeals court ruled that Lance Cpl. Levi Angell's $500,352 death benefits go solely to his mother as he designated on his military life insurance policy.

A Carlton County District Court judge had awarded $150,000 of those benefits to Gordon Angell Jr., father of the deceased Cloquet Marine, when Gordon and Loretta divorced last year.

State law allows the district court to apportion up to one-half of a spouse's nonmarital property to the other if it finds that the other spouse's resources are so inadequate that the division of only the marital property would cause an unfair hardship. Gordon Angell is 67 and has no bank accounts, retirement savings or pension. His only source of income is $424 in monthly Supplemental Security Income payments. He has employment-restricting health problems and lives with his mother.

However, the three-judge appeals court panel determined that federal law prevents courts from dividing military death benefits when one parent is the sole beneficiary because the benefits fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government.

Lance Cpl. Angell's military group life insurance certificate form offered spaces to list five beneficiaries. He used only one space, naming his mother alone.

"I am tickled pink the way it turned out because that is the way my son wanted it in the first place," Loretta Angell said. "Levi was an adult and he had it cut and dried who he wanted as his beneficiary with the government signings and OK-ings. That is what Levi's wishes were. So it's nice that his wishes were brought back the way that he wanted."

Loretta Angell testified at trial that she was closer to her son than his father was, which Gordon Angell disputes. Loretta Angell said Tuesday that she and her ex-husband interpreted their individual relationships with their son differently. She declined to elaborate.

Loretta Angell was represented by Duluth attorney Arthur Albertson. He said he argued the appeal based on the federal law and said the fallen serviceman's relationship with his father had no relevance in the appeal.

Gordon Angell referred questions to Esko attorney Peter Radosevich, who provided him free legal counsel in responding to his ex-wife's appeal. Radosevich said he will advise his client to petition the state Supreme Court to review the decision.

"I think the Supreme Court is going to need to decide if federal law can pre-empt state law on this particular issue," Radosevich said. "It was very obvious to the trial court that the mom took care of the finances, paid all the bills and took care of all the details. It just made sense that he [Levi] would list her as the beneficiary if anything happened to him."

Lance Cpl. Angell, 20, died in combat on April 8, 2004, in Iraq when the Humvee he was driving in Abu Ghurayb on the road to Fallujah was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. He was the sixth of nine children. He graduated from Cloquet High School, where he was involved in football, track and theater.