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Matter of Estate of Lanken

February 9, 1996

IN THE MATTER OF THE ESTATE OF PETER NICHOLAS LANKEN, DECEASED


Higgins Cass, J.s.c.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Cass

CIVIL ACTION

HIGGINS CASS, J.S.C.

This matter came before me by way of an order to show cause and verified complaint filed by plaintiff Paul N. Lanken, administrator of the estate of Peter Nicholas Lanken. Plaintiff seeks a judgment that the proceeds of Mr. Lanken's tax-qualified pensionplan administered by the General Electric Company Pension Plan (GE) be paid to his estate. GE has filed a third party complaint demanding indemnification from Rachel Lanken, decedent's ex-wife, for all sums found due against it and in favor of the estate of Lanken.

On February 15, 1978, Peter Lanken designated his wife Rachel the beneficiary of his pension plan. The plan provided that a designated beneficiary could be changed at any time by filing written notice of the change with the pension board. Mr. Lanken divorced his wife on February 9, 1979 and left the employ of GE on June 29, 1979. In the judgment of divorce Rachel Lanken withdrew her "demand for support, equitable distribution, and attorneys fees." However, Mr. Lanken failed to change the designated beneficiary of his pension assets and never informed GE of his divorce. He died on December 30, 1993.

On October 24, 1994, GE was notified of the divorce by a representative of the estate and a demand was made for the pension proceeds. However, on June 23, 1995, GE disbursed the pension benefits to the named beneficiary, Rachel Lanken. The issue before the court is whether the general language of waiver contained in the judgment of divorce will serve as a disclaimer of Rachel Lanken's interest in her former husband's pension proceeds.

I.

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), 29 U.S.C.A. §§ 1001-1461, governs the determination of whether decedent's ex-wife may waive her interest in his tax-qualified pension plan. See 29 U.S.C.A. §§ 1144(a), 1002(3). The preemption provision of ERISA, 29 U.S.C.A. § 1144(a), provides that:

the provisions of this subchapter and subchapter III of this chapter shall supersede any and all State laws insofar as they may now or hereafter relate to any employee benefit plan described in section 1003(a) of this title and not exempt under section 1003(b) of this title. This section shall take effect on January 1, 1975.

This provision was deliberately crafted in an expansive manner, and it has been construed broadly. Pilot Life Ins. Co. v. Dedeaux, 481 U.S. 41, 47, 107 S. Ct. 1549, 1552-53, 95 L. Ed. 2d 39, 48 (1987); Shaw v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 463 U.S. 85, 96-97, 103 S. Ct. 2890, 2899-900, 77 L. Ed. 2d 490, 500-01 (1983).

State laws relating to any ERISA plan are preempted unless they fall into the "saving" clause which exempts from preemption state laws which regulate insurance, banking, or securities. 29 U.S.C.A. § 1144(b)(2)(A). The "saving" clause, however, is restricted by the "deemer" clause, which "essentially dictates that states may not treat self-insured ERISA plans as insurers in order to subject them to state insurance regulation." Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Hanslip, 939 F.2d 904, 906 (10th Cir. 1991); 29 U.S.C.A. § 1144(b)(2)(B).

Congress intended that courts would develop federal common law when interpreting ERISA. Amato v. Bernard, 618 F.2d 559, 567 (9th Cir. 1980). Thus, once it has been determined that a plan is governed by ERISA, where the statute is silent on an issue, federal common law applies. Krishna v. Colgate Palmolive Co., 7 F.3d 11, 14 (2nd Cir. 1993); Nachwalter v. Christie, 805 F.2d 956, 959-60 (11th Cir. 1986). If there is no clearly established federal common law on point, courts may draw guidance from analogous state common law. Id. However, if a state's common law is inconsistent with the policies behind the federal statute, it may not be considered in interpreting that statute. Id.

II.

Section 1056(d) of ERISA specifically governs the pension plan in question. This section requires that "each pension plan shall provide that benefits provided under the plan may not be assigned or alienated." 29 U.S.C.A. ยง 1056(d)(1). The anti-alienation provision of ERISA applies only to pension plans and will not apply to a life insurance plan which is a "welfare plan" under ...


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