ERISA-Second Circuit Rules That A Participant Cannot Change The Form Of His Pension Payment Due To Abandonment By His Spouse

In Zangara v. International Painters & Allied Trades Industry Pension Fund, No. 10-1825-cv (2nd Cir. 2011) (Summary Order), the plaintiff’s pension was being paid in the form of a joint and survivor annuity, apparently with his spouse as the survivor annuitant. After his spouse abandoned him, the plaintiff wanted to change to form of payment, presumably to a life annuity since the payments under that form would be higher (because there is no survivor annuity). However, the defendant, the International Painters & Allied Trades Industry Pension Fund (the “Fund”) would not make this change, and the plaintiff brought suit against it under ERISA. The district court granted summary judgment in the Fund’s favor, and the plaintiff appealed. The question for the Second Circuit Court (the “Court”): could the Fund be required to change the form of the plaintiff’s pension payment from a joint and survivor annuity to a life annuity?

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the Fund breached a fiduciary duty owed to him under ERISA by, among other things, (1) failing to alter the form of his pension payments, prior to the start of the payments, despite making timely oral requests to do so after his wife had abandoned him and (2) citing authority contrary to his position in denying his request. The Court noted that it could reject the breach of duty argument on the grounds that the plaintiff did not make it in the district court. Nevertheless, the Court answered the argument as follows.

The Fund clearly indicates–both in its Summary Plan Description (“SPD”) and its plan document–that waiver of the joint and survivor annuity form of payment must be made by written request, accompanied by a notarized spousal consent. Without such a waiver, a participant’s pension is automatically payable in that form. Moreover, the Fund had provided the plaintiff with a waiver form, but the plaintiff expressly selected the joint and survivor annuity on that form. Further, the Fund did not breach any fiduciary duty to the plaintiff by citing authority contrary to his position in rejecting his request to alter the form of his pension payments. A plan is not required to recognize a waiver of payment form or other benefits through external documents-other than a qualified domestic relations order (a “QDRO”)- if the form of the waiver conflicts with plan documents (here, the plaintiff had a divorce decree and a court order, neither of which constituted a QDRO or presented a waiver in the form or at the time required by the Fund). In short, the plaintiff never made the waiver of the joint and survivor annuity in the form required under the terms of the Fund. As such, the Court ruled that the Fund was not required to change the plaintiff’s form of payment, and it therefore affirmed the district court’s summary judgment in the Fund’s favor.

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