Unsigned Form Throws Disputed 401(k) Assets to Participant's Son

June 10, 2008 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - A federal judge in Florida has ruled that a deceased 401(k) plan participant's girlfriend is not entitled to half the approximately $450,000 in his account because he did not sign the designation form naming her a partial beneficiary.

U.S. District Judge John Antoon II of  the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Floridaawarded the disputed benefits instead to the participant’s son because the participant’s 2001 designation of his girlfriend and daughter as 50/50 beneficiaries was not properly executed. In reaching that conclusion, Antoon ruled that an earlier designation form signed byBuddy Coxin 1990 naming his son, Thomas Cox, as his beneficiary was the only valid designation at the time of the participant’s death.

In his decision, Antoon rejected girlfriend Jerri L. Dunn’s contention that the plan did not require that a beneficiary designation be signed to be effective.

“[T]he very argument that a signature is not required merely begs the question of whether (Cox) is the one who made the designation on the second form. Anyone could fill out a form and send it in naming a beneficiary; without a signature, the identity of the ‘designator’ cannot be conclusively determined. The lack of a signature is not a minor technicality that should be lightly overlooked or excused,” Antoon asserted.

The court went on to reject Dunn’s contention that the 2001 beneficiary designation form should be given effect under the doctrine of substantial compliance.

In a second decision Antoon threw out Dunn’s separate lawsuit alleging that Harris and Fidelity breached their Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) fiduciary duties through their handling of the unsigned beneficiary designation form.

The case is Dunn v. Cox,   M.D. Fla., No. 6:05-cv-1388-Orl-28DAB, 6/6/08.