Widow Loses SERP Benefits Bid

November 18, 2010 (PLANSPONSOR.com) – The widow of a participant in Diebold Inc.'s supplemental executive retirement plan (SERP) did not meet the plan’s definition of “spouse,” so she was not entitled to her late husband’s benefits, a federal judge ruled.

 In rebuffing Michele B. Parr’s claims that she should be awarded the benefits accrued by her late husband, Harry Parr, Chief U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio ruled that the plan’s “spouse” definition controls over the comparable language in the summary plan description (SPD).

According to Oliver, 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case law on the subject holds that when a participant receives only a copy of the SPD, that language controls when it conflicts with plan language. However, there must be more than “inconsistency” for the SPD language to control, and ambiguous SPD language does not trump unambiguous plan language, Oliver explained.

The ruling said the Diebold SERP defined “spouse” as the participant’s surviving spouse at the time of the participant’s death provided that they were married at least one year prior to the earlier of the participant’s death or date of retirement. Meanwhile, under the SPD, a participant and his or her spouse must have been married throughout the one-year period before the participant’s death for the spouse to qualify for benefits. The widow in this case was married to the participant when he died, but not when he retired.

In ruling that the plan’s clear language should determine the outcome of Michele Parr’s claims, Oliver said that while the omission in the SPD of the “earlier of” language may produce misrepresentations, it did not alter the plan’s terms. The court further ruled that the plan administrator did not act arbitrarily and capriciously when it determined that the widow did not fall under the SERP’s definition of “spouse.”

“The definition of ‘spouse’ contained in the SERP, on a plain reading, does not apply to Plaintiff. She was not married to Mr. Parr at the time of his retirement and is therefore not entitled to the death benefits as a spouse under the terms of the plan,” Oliver declared in the ruling.

Even if the SPD language did create a conflict, the administrator’s decision had to be deferred to because it was rational in light of the plan language, Oliver contended.

The case is Parr v. Diebold Inc., N.D. Ohio, No. 5:09 CV 1041.