Friday, August 24, 2007

Case Law Development: QDRO Sole Route to Waiver of Pension Rights

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals holds that a QDRO is the only route to waiver of pension rights upon divorce.  This case involved Decedent-Husband, who was a DuPont employee and participant in its savings and investment plan (SIP). Decedent had signed a beneficiary-designation form in 1974, identifying Wife as the SIP’s sole beneficiary. Decedent and Wife were divorced in 1994. In the divorce decree, Wife agreed to be divested of “all right, title, interest, and claim in and to … the proceeds therefrom, and any other rights related to any … retirement plan, pension plan, or like benefit program existing by reason of [decedent’s] employment.” However, no QDRO was ever submitted to DuPont.  Decedent never changed or removed the Wife as the SIP beneficiary. 

Decedent’s estate demanded DuPont distribute SIP funds to the estate, claiming that Wife’s beneficiary designation was invalid under the Texas Family Code, which provides that spousal beneficiary designations are rendered invalid by a divorce.  While the district court held that federal law preempted state law, it found that a federal common law approach applied, allowing waiver of the benefits.

The court of appeals reversed, finding that the anti-alienation provision of ERISA applied to this plan because it was a pension plan, distinguishing the district court’s common-law waiver approach as having been applied only to life insurance plans, to which the anti-alienation provision does not apply.Moreover, the court rejected the estate’s argument that a “waiver” is not an “alienation” and thus does not run afoul of the anti-alienation provision.  Rather the court concluded that:

In the marital-dissolution context, the QDRO provisions supply the sole exception to the anti-alienation provision, they exempt a state domestic-relations order determined to be a QDRO, under the standards set forth in ERISA… When, as here, ERISA provides a specific mechanism – the QDRO – for addressing the elimination of a souse’s interest in plan benefits, but that mechanism is not invoked, there is no basis to formulate a federal-common-law rule. Requiring DuPont to recognize the waiver in this situation would conflict with ERISA by purporting to determine rights to pension-plan benefits in a manner not authorized by the QDRO provisions, 29 U.S.C. § 1056(d)(3), and therefore, not permitted by the anti-alienation provision, 29 U.S.C. § 1056(d)(1).

Kennedy v. Plan Administrator for DuPont Saving and Investment Plan, U.S Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, August 15, 2007
Opinion online (last visited August 24, 2007 bgf)

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/family_law/2007/08/case-law-dev-14.html

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