S.D.N.Y. Notes Split Re Whether ERISA Plan Administrators Are Required to Recognize a Beneficiary's Waiver of Benefits in External Documents

Per Hallingby v. Hallingby, --- F.Supp.2d ----, 2008 WL 878290 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 26, 2008):

Section 1104 [of ERISA] requires plans to be administered “in accordance with the documents and instruments governing the plan.” As noted in McGowan, there is a Circuit split regarding whether administrators of an ERISA plan are required to recognize a beneficiary's waiver of his or her benefits in external documents. Id. at 244. The majority of Circuits have looked to federal common law to hold that such waivers are valid under certain circumstances, but the minority view is that plan administrators need not look beyond the documents on file with the plan to determine whether there has been a valid waiver effectuated in outside private documents. See id. ( citing Altobelli v. International Bus. Mach. Corp., 77 F.3d 78 (4th Cir.1996) (majority view); Mohamed v. Kerr, 53 F.3d 911 (8th Cir.1995) (majority view); Brandon v. Travelers Ins. Co., 18 F.3d 1321 (5th Cir.1994) (majority view); Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Hanslip, 939 F.2d 904 (10th Cir.1991) (majority view); Fox Valley & Vicinity Constr. Workers Pension Fund v. Brown, 897 F.2d 275 (7th Cir.1990) (en banc) (majority view); Krishna v. Colgate Palmolive Co., 7 F.3d 11 (2d Cir.1993) (minority view); McMillan v. Parrott, 913 F.2d 310 (6th Cir.1990) (minority view)). As noted, the Second Circuit adheres to the minority rule. See id. ( citing Krishna, 7 F.3d at 16 (2d Cir.1993) (“It would be counterproductive to compel the Policy administrator to look beyond designations [in plan documents] into varying state laws regarding wills, trusts and estates, or domestic relations to determine the proper beneficiaries of Policy distributions.”)) In the instant case, requiring plan administrators to look beyond the plan documents to marital property settlements to determine a beneficiary of a survivor annuity would be inconsistent with the clear directives of § 1104 and the Second Circuit's decision in Krishna.


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