It is standard practice for most divorce practitioners to notify their clients to update their estate plans and change the beneficiaries of life insurance policies and retirement accounts following a divorce - and for good reason. While it is often thought that a divorce terminates beneficiary designations to a former spouse, a recent decision from the US Supreme Court is a reminder that this is not necessarily the case.
The US Supreme Court recently issued a decision in Kennedy v. Plan Administrator for DuPont Savings and Investment Plan, holding that a wife’s waiver of her interest in her husband’s retirement plan through DuPont contained in the parties’ divorce agreement was not sufficient to bind the plan administrator, who was obligated to distribute the funds to the former spouse pursuant to the beneficiary designation. The husband had designated his wife as beneficiary of his ERISA qualified retirement plan at the time of their marriage. When they divorced, the wife waived her interest in the retirement plan, which was retained by the husband in the division of property in the divorce. Yet after the divorce, the husband failed to revoke or alter the designation of his former wife as beneficiary of his retirement plan. Absent revocation or designation of a new beneficiary, under ERISA (federal law that sets standards for most private pension plans and other retirement accounts) a Qualified Domestic Relations Order, and not simply a judgment of divorce, is necessary for a former spouse’s interest to be waived. There was no QDRO in the Kennedy case and thus, because she was still listed as the beneficiary, Mr. Kennedy’s former spouse was entitled to receive the benefits, despite the divorce.
It is always good practice to review your estate plan at regular intervals, including who is listed as beneficiary of your life insurance and retirement plans. It is particularly important to do so whenever there is a major event in your life, including a birth, death, marriage, or divorce. Failure to do so may result in benefits passing to an unintended recipient.