Beneficiary Form in Substantial Compliance With 401(k) Rules


James Marier was married to his wife Kathleen for twelve years, until the couple divorced. As often happens, Mr. Marier continued to maintain a good relationship with his step-daughter, Tracy Marks. Her children called Mr. Marier “Grandpa Jim,” and he continued to spend holidays with his ex-wife, his step-daughter and the grandchildren.

Mr. Marier had a 401(k) retirement plan through his work, and after his divorce named his mother as its primary beneficiary. Later, after a visit from his sisters, he decided to break from his family altogether, and he wrote a will naming his step-daughter as personal representative and primary beneficiary. He also decided to change the beneficiary to leave his 401(k) plan to Ms. Marks.

Mr. Marier filled out the change of beneficiary form, listing Ms. Marks as his primary beneficiary. In the space marked “relationship” he apparently wrote in something, but then covered the entry with white-out. The form as sent to the plan administrator left the space blank. The administrator, in turn, mailed the form back to Mr. Marier with a note that he needed to complete empty space, and noting that “white-out is not accepted.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Marier’s health was declining rapidly by that time. When the form arrived he had just undergone surgery for a brain tumor, and the form was never returned to the 401(k) administrator. Mr. Marier did call the administrator’s office at one point, and asked who was named as his beneficiary; the individual who spoke with him looked at a scanned copy of the form and assured him that his step-daughter was his primary beneficiary.

When Mr. Marier died, the 401(k) administrator initially determined that the last beneficiary designation was improper and began the process to pay the plan balance to Mr. Marier’s mother’s conservator. Ms. Marks objected, arguing that she had been properly named as beneficiary. The administrator then decided that the failure to fill in the relationship line was “not a material omission,” especially since previous beneficiary designation forms on file adequately identified her, but turned to the courts to determine who should receive the account balance.

The trial court found that the 401(k) plan required that the form be properly completed, and ordered the money paid to Mr. Marier’s mother. The Eighth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals disagreed, however, ruling that the plan’s decision to accept the form as being in substantial compliance, even though the administrator then turned the matter over to the courts, was sufficient to leave the account to Ms. Marks. Marks v. Irwin Bank & Trust, October 19, 2006.

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