ERISA-Sixth Circuit Discusses Whether A Fiancée Is a Domestic Partner And Thus The Beneficiary Of A Life Insurance Plan

In Union Security Insurance Company v. Blakeley, No. 09-4368 (6th Cir. 2011), the Court was asked to determine the beneficiary under a life insurance policy. The policy constituted a plan subject to ERISA (the “Plan”). In this case, at his death, Thomas Blakeley was unmarried, and left behind three children, a cohabitant and a purported fiancée named Sondra Billet. He had failed to designate a beneficiary under the Plan. The Plan provided that, in the absence of a designated beneficiary, the benefits are distributed in the following order: First to the insured’s spouse, then to his domestic partner, his children (or his domestic partner’s children), his living parents, or his estate. The issue is whether Sondra Billet qualifies as a domestic partner.

The Court said that the text of the Plan is the preferred source, as opposed to federal common law, for identifying the beneficiary. The Court cited Kennedy v. Plan Adm’r for DuPont Sav. and Inv. Plan, 129 S. Ct. 865, 875 (2009) for this proposition. Thus, if a court can identify a workable means of identifying beneficiaries in the Plan document–whether it be in a general definition section or in the Plan as a whole-it need look no further. In this case, the Plan, read as a whole, does define “domestic partner.” Although this definition is missing from the Plan’s general definition section, the Plan elsewhere lists seven criteria to help pinpoint a true “domestic partner”. These criteria are:

(1) You and your domestic partner have had a committed relationship of mutual caring which has existed for at least 6 months, or meet the requirements and have registered as domestic partners, if the controlling governmental authority provides for such registration;

(2) You and your domestic partner are each age 18 or more and mentally competent to consent to contract;

(3) Neither you nor your domestic partner are married to someone else, and your relationship is mutually exclusive;

(4) You and your domestic partner are not related by blood any closer than would prohibit legal marriage;

(5) You and your domestic partner are financially interdependent;

(6) You and your domestic partner each have power of attorney for each other; and
(7) At least 6 months have elapsed since similar coverage was terminated on a previously insured domestic partner, if any, unless the previous domestic partner has died.

The Court said that these criteria offer the framework for deciding whether Sondra Billet qualifies as a true “domestic partner” and thus the beneficiary under the Plan. Since it did not have enough facts to make this decision, the Court remanded the case back to the district court to gather the facts and make the determination.

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