Court: 'Presumed Dead' Beneficiary's Estate Is Not Entitled to Benefits

May 22, 2003 ( - Presumption of death does not warrant benefit payments to the estate of a retirement plan participant's widow, since the estate could not provide a date of death.

The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit interpreted the law to mean that the presumption of death extends only to the fact of death, but establishes no presumption as to when the death occurred. Therefore, Circuit Judge Raymond Randolph, writing for the court, found the date of the widow’s death was “a question of fact, to be resolved on the evidence submitted to the trustees,” according to Washington-based legal publisher BNA.

This ran counter to the estate’s argument that under the applicable state law the trustees of the retirement plan were obligated to presume the widow was alive for the seven years following a disappearance.   However, the appellate court, concurring with a lower court’s opinion, agreed the trustees acted in accordance with the plan and state law in refusing to honor the estate’s claim, since the estate could provide no evidence the widow lived after her disappearance.

Disappearing Act

Doris Cornwell began receiving surviving spouse benefits for an ERISA governed AFL-CIO Staff Retirement Plan for employees following the death of her husband, a participant in the plan, in 1977. The plan stipulated Cornwell was entitled to receive benefits during her lifetime.  

Cornwell vanished in 1982.Apart from an alleged sighting soon after she disappeared, no one saw or heard from her again. After learning of her disappearance, the plan trustees suspended payment of Cornwell’s benefits, with the qualification that if she reappeared the suspended payments would be disbursed.

In 1998, a Virginia state court declared Cornwell “presumed dead.”   Following the ruling, the administrator of Cornwell’s estate submitted a claim to the plan trustees for the payment of benefits that had accrued from 1982 until 1998. As evidence of the estate’s eligibility to receive benefits, the estate submitted a copy of the state court decree, and a letter describing Cornwell’s disappearance.

The trustees denied the estate’s claim, saying the estate failed to provide evidence that Cornwell remained alive after her disappearance. The estate then brought an action under ERISA for benefits, claiming Cornwell was presumed to be alive until the state court decree in 1998.

The US District Court for the District of Columbia Circuit granted summary judgment for the trustees. The appeals court affirmed.

The case is Fuller v. American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, D.C. Cir., No. 02-7043, 5/16/03.