Sister’s Bid for Plan Account Payout Tossed by Judge

March 29, 2011 ( – A federal judge in Connecticut has rebuffed efforts by the sister of a deceased plan participant to get a payout of her brother’s plan balance. 

U.S. District Judge Janet C. Hall of the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut rejected the claim by Deborah Thomas that her brother’s estranged wife had effectively abandoned him prior to his death. Therefore, Thomas claimed, her brother was under no obligation under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) to get the estranged wife’s signoff before naming his sister a plan beneficiary.

The court found that a court order of abandonment must be obtained before a surviving spouse can lose his or her right to surviving spouse benefits. Here, there was no such court order, Hall said.

According to court records, as a participant in a pension plan sponsored by Community Renewal Team Inc., Narsayah Tomby had designated Thomas as his beneficiary. A few years later, he married Tarawatti Tomby, but failed to change his designation form. Under ERISA, Tarawatti became his new beneficiary.

While Thomas argued that in Connecticut, a court order of abandonment can be obtained only after the death of a spouse, the court said any such order issued after the death of a participant would not constitute a valid waiver under ERISA.

The case is Thomas v. Community Renewal Team Inc., D. Conn., No. 3:10-cv-01022-JCH.