Becker Williams, F. Supp. 3d , 2016 WL 878492 (W.D. Wash. 2016)
Facts: Husband and wife were married in In 2002, the husband designated the wife as survivor beneficiary of his retirement plans with Xerox.
Husband and wife were divorced in 2006. In 2007, the employer received several telephone calls from a person claiming to be the husband, who said that he wanted to change the beneficiary to his son by a prior marriage. In response to these calls, the employer sent the husband three different copies of the written form necessary to complete the change. The first two forms were not returned; the third form was returned unsigned and undated.
When the husband died, both wife and son asserted claims to the survivor benefits, and the employer interpleaded the benefits into federal court. The trial court declined to allow summary judgment, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed, finding that a telephonic change of beneficiary was potentially enforceable, even without a writing, and that a it was a material issue of fact as to whether such a designation was actually made. Becker v. Williams, 777 F.3d 1035, 1042 (9th Cir. 2015). Upon remand, the district court held a trial and addressed the merits.
Issue: Who was entitled to the husband’s survivor benefits?
Answer to Issue: The wife
Summary of Rationale: Under Washington state law, to change a survivor beneficiary, an employee must substantially conform with the terms of the policy or “[S]ubstantial compliance with the terms of the policy means that the insured has not only manifested an intent to change beneficiaries, but has done everything which was reasonably possible to make that change.” 2016 WL 878492, at *2 (quoting Allen v. Abrahamson, 12 Wash. App. 103, 105, 529 P.2d 469, 470 (1974)).
The son did not meet his burden of proving substantial compliance. First, there was no evidence that the person who called to make the change of beneficiary was actually the husband. Second, the husband’s failure to return the first two forms and his failure to sign and date the third form suggest that his intention to change the beneficiary was not complete. In this regard, the court noted that the forms themselves stated that the change of beneficiary was not valid until the form was signed and returned. “[T]he failure to complete simple, mundane tasks undermines Asa Sr.’s alleged unequivocal desire to change his beneficiary.” Id. at *3.