Federal Law on Beneficiaries Overrides State Divorce Rules

MARCH 26, 2001 VOLUME 8, NUMBER 39

Assume that Mr. and Mrs. Smith, happily married, sign wills leaving all their assets to one another. Some years later their marriage fails, and the Smiths divorce. Will their old wills still be valid?

Arizona, like many other states, has a provision that effectively revokes Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s wills. Each is treated as having died before the other, so whatever alternate provisions they have made will take effect instead. This seems fair and proper; we can assume that Mr. and Mrs. Smith no longer wish to leave everything to each other if they no longer live together. In fact, Arizona law goes further, and provides that the Smiths’ designation of life insurance beneficiaries, joint tenancy and other substitutes for wills are also invalidated.

Washington state law is similar, and so the results in that state should be about the same. If Mr. and Mrs. Smith (or, in the case offered for our current review, Mr. and Mrs. Egelhoff) get divorced, any designation of joint ownership or beneficiary designation is automatically revoked.

Donna Rae and David A. Egelhoff were divorced in 1994. Mr. Egelhoff was an employee at the Boeing Company, and had a company pension and life insurance policy. Both named his wife as beneficiary. Mr. Egelhoff was killed in an automobile accident two months after the divorce, before he had gotten around to changing the beneficiary designations.

Mr. Egelhoff’s two children from a prior marriage pointed to the Washington statute, and argued that they should receive both the life insurance and the pension benefits. The problem: both plans were covered by the Employee Retirement Security Income Act of 1974, popularly known as ERISA.

Most employer-provided plans that include pension and life insurance benefits are governed by ERISA. In order to protect workers from state variations, ERISA expressly provides that state law is ineffective in any attempt to determine ownership rights in the plans. The so-called “pre-emption” provision of ERISA overrides any state law to the contrary.

But, argued Mr. Egelhoff’s children, the Washington law did not really affect ownership of the retirement plan and life insurance. The Washington State Supreme Court agreed, and ordered the benefits paid to the children. Mrs. Egelhoff appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the state courts and ordered that the proceeds belonged to Mrs. Egelhoff. Mr. Egelhoff could have changed the beneficiary designations, but he would have to have done so in accordance with the strict provisions of the retirement plan and federal law. Washington’s state law (and almost certainly Arizona’s as well) failed to protect Mr. Egelhoff’s children from his failure to make the formal change. The Court’s holding only applies to benefits plans covered by ERISA, but since most retirement plans and company life insurance benefits are covered the effect is far-reaching. The state law that automatically rewrites a divorcing couple’s wills is still valid, but not necessarily the provisions relating to life insurance and pension rights. Egelhoff v. Egelhoff, March 21, 2001.

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