Pre-Nup Pact Not an ERISA Benefits Waiver

January 4, 2008 (PLANSPONSOR.COM) - Because a 401(k) participant's widow had not yet married her husband when she signed a prenuptial agreement giving up her rights to her husband's retirement benefits, the widow was still entitled to the money.

That was the ruling of U.S. Magistrate Judge Aaron E. Goodstein of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin in a dispute over the benefits between the widow, Renee J. Propst , and her husband’s estate.

Goodman ruled that the case turned on the fact that the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) provides only a “spouse” can waive his or her rights to their partner’s retirement assets. Because the agreement was necessarily signed before the wedding, the benefit waiver it contained was not valid under ERISA.

Not only that, Goodman asserted, the prenuptial agreement between Renee Propst and Alan R. Propst did not satisfy ERISA’s requirements for spousal waiver because the agreement did not list the 401(k) plan and was not signed by a plan representative. According to the ruling, the agreement listed five retirement accounts, but the 401(k) account was absent from that list.

Several months after the Propsts were married, the couple separated, according to the ruling. Alan Propst began divorce proceedings in February 2006, but died in an August 2006 motorcycle accident before the divorce was finalized.

The case is John Deere Deferred Savings Plan for Wage Employees v. Estate of Alan R. Propst,   E.D. Wis., No. 06-C-1235, 12/28/07.