First Wife Gets Plan Participant's Benefits

May 31, 2006 ( - The 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a deceased pension plan participant's first wife is his surviving spouse under Ohio law and should receive pension, life and health benefits.

The Cincinnati, Ohio court’s opinion reversed a district court’s ruling that Douglas Durden’s second wife, Rita Marshall, was his surviving spouse under Michigan law, according to court records.

Durden worked at DaimlerChrysler Corp. in Michigan, and he had a company life insurance plan that would give benefits to his surviving spouse. On the plan’s documents Marshall is listed as Durden’s spouse, but both wives applied for benefits after Durden’s death.

Durden and his first wife, Ann Linzy, were married in 1966 and lived together in Ohio until 1982 when Linzy moved to Tennessee, according to court records. Durden and Linzy did not divorce. In 1972, Durden and Marshall began their relationship and were married in 1985. On his marriage certificate, Durden swore that he and Linzy divorced in 1971 in Tennessee, but there is no public record evidence of that, according to the court’s opinion.

The appellate court decided Ohio law was the correct law to use in the decision because Durden and Linzy were married in Ohio. Durden was an Ohio resident when he married Marshall and Durden and Marshall lived in Ohio until Durden died, according to court records.

Michigan law favors “later ceremonial marriage,” especially when a couple has children. But in Ohio, the second spouse must prove that the first marriage ended. The Ohio Supreme Court decided, “Where it is stipulated that both marriages have been lawfully solemnized, and the record is silent as to whether there has been a divorce of the parties to the first marriage, there is a presumption that the status of the parties to the first marriage continues, and the burden is upon the parties claiming the validity of the second marriage to overcome such presumption.”

The US District Court for the Southern District of Texas ruled in November 2005 in favor of the surviving spouse, in this case the plan participant’s second wife. The court decided that she is entitled to the participant’s benefits, not his ex-wife and sons who were the original named beneficiaries (See Surviving Spouse Right Supersede Named Beneficiaries ).