Surviving Spouse Plan Requirements Cannot be Changed by Oral Representation

March 17, 2008 ( - The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court ruling that a pension plan administrator was correct in denying surviving spouse benefits to a widow not legally married to the deceased participant at the time of his retirement.

The appellate court held that the district court properly granted summary judgment for the Pension Fund because its administrator did not abuse his discretion when he determined that Marian and George Robinson were not legally married when George retired. The appellate court said the district court correctly concluded that it was unreasonable for Marian to rely on an oral representation that the “Designation of Beneficiary” would make her a qualified spouse under the plan.

According to the opinion, it was unreasonable for Marian “to rely on the oral statements that purportedly modified the clear definition of “qualified spouse” in the plan’s terms.” The plan dictates that a qualified spouse is a spouse who was legally married to the participant for the 12-month period immediately preceding the participant’s death or annuity starting date.

Marian and George lived together as husband and wife in Louisiana from 1978 until their legal marriage in 1996. George had retired from his job as a longshoreman in 1984. Sometime immediately following their legal union, a representative from the New Orleans Employers ILA AFL-CIO Pension Welfare Vacation & Holiday Funds told Marian and George that if George signed a “Designation of Beneficiary” naming Marian as the sole beneficiary under his pension plan, then the Pension Fund would consider Marian to be a qualified spouse.

George died in November of 2004, and Marian applied for surviving spouse benefits. When her request was denied she appealed the decision to the Pension Fund trustees, who confirmed the denial.

Marian filed suit asking a district court to recognize her relationship with George prior to their legal marriage as a common law marriage. However, the district court pointed out that Louisiana does not recognize common law marriages. In addition, Marian argued that she and George relied to their detriment on the statements made to them by the Pension Fund representative, but the court found this to be unreasonable.

The opinion in Robinson v. New Orleans Employers ILA AFL-CIO Pension Welfare Vacation & Holiday Funds is here .