Reach Out And Designate Someone?

by Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp LLP

Reach Out And Designate Someone?

The seemingly staid world of retirement plan beneficiary designations was surprised by a recent federal appeals court decision suggesting that a new beneficiary could be designated by a telephone call.

Mr. Williams, an employee of Xerox Corporation, participated in two Xerox retirement plans and designated his wife as his beneficiary. When he got divorced, he decided he wanted his son to be his beneficiary instead of his ex-wife. On two separate occasions, Mr. Williams called the Xerox benefits center and told them he wanted to designate his son as beneficiary instead of his ex-wife. Both times, the benefits center sent him new beneficiary designation forms to fill out. The forms were received by Mr. Williams but never signed.

Then Mr. Williams died. His ex-wife claimed she was entitled to the retirement benefits because Mr. Williams never signed the beneficiary designation forms naming his son. The son claimed that he should be treated as the beneficiary based on the phone calls. Rather than try to resolve the conflicting claims, the plan administrator interpleaded the ex-wife and son in federal district court so that the court would decide. The federal district court decided in favor of the ex-wife. So, the son appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The ex-wife claimed the beneficiary designation forms were “plan documents” which governed the administration of the plan. Under this theory, since Mr. Williams never signed a new beneficiary designation naming his son, the prior beneficiary designation was a plan document that required payment of the benefits to her. The specific decision by the appeals court was that the beneficiary designation was not a plan document setting out the terms of the plan and therefore did not govern the plan administrator’s award of benefits. (A full copy of the decision in the case of Mays-Williams v. Williams can be found here)

Although the plan administrator could have decided who was entitled to the benefits in this case, in which case the courts would have been required to uphold the plan’s decision absent the finding of an abuse of discretion, the plan administrator chose not to decide and to instead leave the decision the court. The court therefore had to make its own independent review of the plan itself and the summary plan description.

The court noted that the plan and the plan summary provided, in accordance with federal law, that a married participant could not designate a beneficiary other than a surviving spouse without a written designation signed by the participant and spouse, but that the plan had no such requirements for unmarried participants. The plan summary instructed unmarried participants to call the Xerox benefits center or visit the Xerox website in order to change or complete a beneficiary designation. Accordingly, the court held: “Nothing in the plan documents prevents unmarried participants from designating beneficiaries by telephone call.”

The appeals court did not decide in favor of the son but rather sent the case back to the district court for a further decision based on the appeals courts findings. Who gets Mr. Williams’ benefits? We won’t know until the district court re-hears the case. ​

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp LLP | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp LLP

Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp LLP on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.


JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at:

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.