Decedent’s Ex-Wife Lacked Standing to Sue Under ERISA

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”) is a Federal law designed to ensure that private sector employment benefits are administered with a minimum level of fairness and due process.  ERISA can operate as a floor on the minimum level of due process and fairness, as well as a cap, overriding any state laws to the contrary.

Requirement of Standing in Challenging ERISA-Governed Plans

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that an ex-wife lacked standing to sue her former husband’s employer and benefits administrator under ERISA.

In Caples v. U.S. Foodservice, Inc., 444 Fed. Appx. 49 (5th Cir. 2011) an employee designated his wife as the primary beneficiary on a life insurance policy.  After the benefits administrator took over responsibility for the administration of the employer’s benefits management system, the employee, now deceased, selected various insurance benefits for both himself and his son.  At the time of this election, he and his wife were separated.  They would subsequently divorce. When the employee-plan participant made the elections in favor of him and his son, he did not designate a beneficiary for his life insurance. The employee died after divorcing his wife.

The Court determined that under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B) the ex-wife lacked standing to sue to bring a civil action because she was not a beneficiary under ERISA.  

The reason that she was not a beneficiary was because there was no evidence proffered that the deceased employee knowingly decided not to designate the ex-wife.  In fact, there was a pseudo-presumption that he intended not to designate her in light of the separation at the time and subsequent divorce.  Evidence of the separation was substantial enough to support the determination that the decedent’s son was the proper beneficiary.

It is important to note the standing to sue under ERISA, or lack thereof, that was afforded to the ex-wife here.  Perhaps the case would have turned out different if not for the subsequent divorce.

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