Court Affirms Denial of Survivorship Benefits not Provided for in QDRO

November 4, 2008 ( - A federal judge has ruled that the lack of language in a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) assigning survivorship benefits to an ex-spouse is a clear indication of the intent not to provide those benefits.

U.S. District Judge Jack Zouhary of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, said in his opinion that “the silence regarding this foreseeable circumstance when read in conjunction with all the expressly listed circumstances, each granting benefits, can only lead to the conclusion that survivorship benefits were not envisioned for Belen [Cueller].”

Further, according to Zouhary, the fact that the state court judgment which ordered the preparation of the QDRO did not direct Belen Cueller’s attorney at the time to include a survivorship benefit and Fransisco Cueller made an election of the surviving spouse option for his new wife prior to the filing of the QDRO in Common Pleas Court also proves that the QDRO was not understood to grant Belen survivorship benefits.

It follows that the plan administrator did not act arbitrarily or capriciously in denying benefits, Zouhary said.

Belen and Francisco Cueller divorced in March 1992, and Francisco married Johnlon Fegan in December 1992. Fransisco retired under the GM Pension Plan effective April 1, 1993, and Belen started receiving monthly pension benefits provided for by the QDRO.

According to the court opinion, at the time of his retirement, Fegan was not eligible to receive surviving spouse benefit coverage because she had not been married to Fransisco for at least one year; however, when Fransisco signed his retirement forms on March 17, 1993, he also made an election to designate Johnlon to receive surviving spouse benefits, which would become effective after one year of marriage. Beginning January 1, 1994, the surviving spouse option in favor of Fegan went into effect, and Fransisco’s monthly pension benefit was adjusted accordingly.

After Fransisco died on December 13, 2007, Belen’s monthly pension benefit ceased, while Felan received Fransisco’s survivorship annuity. Belen filed a lawsuit claiming GM violated the QDRO by refusing to pay her benefits after the death of Fransisco.

The case is Compos v. Cuellar, N.D. Ohio, No. 3:08 CV 1666, 10/30/08.