Spouse Absent for 18 Months Can Get Death Benefits

December 29, 2006 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - The US District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan granted summary judgment to a surviving spouse who claimed he was owed benefits from his deceased wife's benefit plans in spite of having been absent from the marriage for 18 months prior to her death.

Ruling against Susan Tkachik, the sister of the deceased participant, the court said a Michigan state court’s judgment that Frank Mandeville was not a surviving spouse due to his absence did not preclude the spousal consent to change beneficiaries provision of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). The court said ERISA did not define the term spouse, therefore there is a presumption that Congress intended to incorporate the common law meaning into the Act.

The court also rejected Tkachik’s argument that her sister was allowed to change beneficiaries by ERISA’s provision relating to instances where participants are deserted by their spouse and the spouse’s whereabouts are not known. The court noted that the deceased participant did not argue this point convincingly to the plan administrator and the fact that the Comerica beneficiary change form appeared to be signed by Mandeville, though it was not dated or notarized, indicated she started the process of changing the beneficiary prior to his absence.

According to the opinion, Janet Mandeville was employed at various times by Comerica and Standard Federal. Her husband was named as beneficiary of her benefits packages. However, Frank Mandeville was out of the country and out of contact with his wife for 18 months prior to her death.

Weeks before her death, Janet Mandeville executed a living trust and a last will and testament providing that nothing was to go to her estranged husband, Frank Mandeville. She also signed forms to change the beneficiary of her benefit packages with Comerica and Standard Federal to her sister. When Tkachik applied for death benefits, Standard Federal denied her claim.

In October 2003, after Janet Mandeville’s death, the Macomb County Probate Court issued an order granting summary judgment determining that Frank Mandeville is not a “surviving spouse” of Janet Mandeville for purposes of Michigan’s intestate succession laws. The Probate Court said that since Frank Mandeville was absent from his spouse for more than one year, he could not contest her trust.

Other than deciding the Probate Court’s judgment did not legally terminate the marriage, the US District Court also said the attempt to change a beneficiary after the death of a participant is untimely.

The case is Tkachik v. Comerica Inc., E.D. Mich., No. 05-72703, 12/26/06.