From November 1978 through December 1991, an employee was covered by a pension fund. He married his first spouse in 1979, and the couple appear to havenever divorced. The employee married his second spouse in a different state in 1995. In 1997, the employee retired and applied for benefits from the pension fund. On his pension application, the employee identified himself as married and named his second spouse as his spouse for purposes of a “50 percent husband–and–wife” benefit option he elected. The employee attached to his benefit application a copy of his marriage certificate memorializing his marriage to the second spouse. Following the employee’s death in January 2007, the pension fund began paying the second spouse a monthly survivor pension on February 1, 2007. The employee’s first spouse applied for survivor benefits from the pension fund later in February 2007, attaching her 1979 marriage certificate and explaining that she and the employee had never divorced.
An interpleader action was commenced, and the Eastern District of Tennessee concluded the second spouse was the proper beneficiary of the employee’s pension benefits. Reasoning that the employee’s pension plan documents supply the exclusive basis for settling a beneficiary dispute, the district court concluded the second spouse was entitled to survivor benefits because the employee identified the second spouse as both his spouse and his beneficiary in his pension application.
The first spouse appealed the district court decision, and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s decision, essentially holding that a plan administrator must follow plan terms to determine the proper beneficiary. The terms of the pension fund guaranteed the employee’s spouse a survivor pension starting after his death unless the spouse consented in writing to waive the survivor benefit, and the plan documents define “spouse” as “a person to whom a participant is legally married.” The Sixth Circuit held that no finding had been made at the district court level as to whether the marriage between the employee and his first spouse was legally dissolved prior to his marriage to his second spouse, and thus no finding had been made as to whether the employee and his second spouse were legally married at the time of his death. Because the plan must pay survivor benefits to the employee’s legal spouse to comply with the terms of the pension fund, the Sixth Circuit remanded the case to the district court to determine which spouse was the employee’s legal spouse at the time of death.
On remand, the district court relied on Tennessee law and found there is a presumption favoring the validity of the employee’s second marriage. Under that presumption, the employee’s marriage to his first spouse was presumed to have been dissolved by divorce when he married his second spouse. To attack the validity of the second marriage, the first spouse has the burden of overcoming the presumption by clear and convincing evidence. Based on the evidence presented, however, the district court found that the first spouse indeed was able to provide sufficient evidence to overcome the presumption favoring the validity of the second marriage. Among other things, the district court found it significant that the first spouse not only had knowledge of the pension fund but knew she would be entitled to survivor benefits as the employee’s spouse. Had a divorce occurred, the first spouse would have sought payment of a portion of the pension fund (presumably via a qualified domestic relations order) at the time of the divorce; her decision to wait to seek a portion of the pension benefit until after the employee’s death adds credibility to her assertion that there had never been a divorce. Accordingly, the first spouse was determined to be the legal spouse at the time of the employee’s death. And because the first spouse never waived her spousal rights, she is the proper beneficiary under the pension fund. (IBEW Pacific Coast Pension Fund v. Lee, E.D. Tenn., 2013)