The United States Supreme Court issued an opinion on January 26, 2009 for Kennedy v. Plan Administrator for DuPont Savings and Investment Plan, a rare family-law related case heard by the Court. This case is an important reminder to all parties in a divorce action to change your beneficiaries in your retirement plans and life insurance policies after your divorce has been finalized, or your ex-spouse could inherit the funds.

William Kennedy participated in his employer DuPont’s savings and investment plan (SIP) which is covered under the Employment Retirement Income Security Act. ERISA is a federal law that sets minimum standards for most private industry pension plans. This plan gave William the power to both designate a beneficiary to receive the funds upon his death and to replace or revoke that designation. If there is no surviving spouse or designated beneficiary at the time of death then the distribution of funds goes directly to the estate’s executor or administrator.

Upon William’s marriage to Liv, William designated Liv as his SIP beneficiary but did not name a contingent beneficiary. When the couple divorced some years later the divorce decree divested Liv of her interest in William’s SIP benefits.  However, the decree did not call for the execution of a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) which would have been one way under ERISA to address the elimination of a spouse’s interest in plan benefits. In addition, William did not execute any documents with his SIP removing Liv as the beneficiary. Nor did Liv follow the SIP’s specific method for disclaiming her interest.

When William died his daughter Kari was named executrix of his estate. Kari asked DuPont to distribute the SIP funds to William’s estate. However, DuPont relied on William’s designation form and paid the funds to Liv. Kari, as executrix of William’s estate, filed suit arguing that Liv had waived her SIP benefits in the divorce and therefore DuPont had violated ERISA by paying the distribution to Liv.

The district court held that the SIP funds should be awarded to William’s estate. However, the court of appeals reversed that decision by holding that while the divorce decree purported to divest Liv of her interest it was not a QDRO and therefore under ERISA it could not be used to waive Liv’s interest. Therefore, the funds were properly distributed to Liv as designated by the plan documents William executed naming her as beneficiary.

The Supreme Court agreed with the court of appeals and held that DuPont had a duty under ERISA to follow the SIP participant’s beneficiary designation even if the waiver incorporated into the divorce decree was conflicting. The incorporated waiver did not amount to a QDRO and the SIP is bound by the plan documents. Therefore, Dupont properly distributed the pension benefits to Liv pursuant to the beneficiary designation form and despite the divorce decree waiver.

Crusco Law Office Law Clerk Marisa L. Ulloa contributed to this post.