Court Denies Change of Beneficiary from Ex to Current Wife

December 15, 2005 ( - The US District Court for the District of Delaware has ruled that a pension plan retiree may not substitute his current wife for his ex-wife as beneficiary of survivor benefits.

The court noted in its opinion, granting summary judgment for the employer, that the employer denied the participant’s request to change his beneficiary under the plan because substitutions were not allowed by the plan or allowed under anti-alienation provisions of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).  

In addition, even though the former spouse signed an outside waiver of her benefits after the couple’s divorce, the court said, “waivers outside the documents of the pension plan are not binding” and “such a waiver would be a breach of the defendant’s fiduciary duty and would violate ERISA’s prohibition on alienation or assignment of benefits.”

The plaintiff had completed beneficiary documentation for the plan, which the court noted was partially filled out, but seemed to name his wife at the time for survivorship benefits.   The plaintiff claimed he never intended to name his then-wife as beneficiary.   The court said that, even though the completion of the form was questionable, the portion of the form for his spouse to waive her rights to survivor benefits was not filled out.

After the plaintiff starting receiving benefits from the plan and benefits were calculated based on his life expectancy and the life expectancy of this wife at the time, he and his wife divorced and he subsequently re-married.   He requested from his employer that his benefits be recalculated with his new wife as survivor or that his new wife be substituted as beneficiary for the benefits already calculated.   The employer denied the request.

The opinion in Ronald J. Smith v. E.I Dupont de Nemours & Co. can be found  on this site .