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Employee Benefits Security Administration

Advisory Opinion

July 12, 2000

Gail Inman-Campbell
Walker, Campbell & Campbell
Suite 201 Security Plaza
P.O. Box 1940
Harrison, Arkansas 72602-1940

2000-09A
ERISA Sec. 206(d)(3)

Dear Ms. Inman-Campbell:

This is in response to your request for an advisory opinion under section 206(d)(3) of ERISA. You raise questions regarding the proper treatment of a domestic relations order that assigns to an alternate payee a “company-paid survivor benefit.” The terms of the affected pension plan makes this company-paid survivor benefit payable only to a beneficiary designated by the participant from within a limited class of individuals (either the participant’s surviving spouse, the participant’s minor child or children, or the participant’s parent or parents). According to your representations, the survivor benefit in question is not the qualified joint and survivor annuity (QJSA) benefit that is mandated by section 205 of ERISA, but is provided by the plan in addition to the QJSA benefit. Specifically, you ask whether an order requiring the company-paid survivor benefit to be paid to the participant’s former spouse, who had been named by the participant as the designated beneficiary under the plan prior to the divorce and as of the date of the participant’s retirement, could constitute a “qualified domestic relations order” (QDRO) within the meaning of section 206 (d)(3) of ERISA.

You represent the applicable facts to be as follows. The plan participant was married when he retired from employment. In connection with his retirement, the participant and his then-wife(1) executed the necessary forms to entitle him to begin to receive his retirement benefits under the employer’s defined benefit pension plan (the Plan).(2)  You further state that the participant elected, with his wife’s consent, to decline to receive his benefits under the Plan in the form of a qualified joint and survivor annuity (QJSA) and elected instead to receive a single life annuity. The consent form executed by the participant’s wife stated:

I, [the participant’s spouse], hereby acknowledge that I have read the notification on the reverse side regarding post-retirement survivor benefits under the [Plan] and consent to waive my right to receive such benefits as the participant’s spouse under the Retirement Equity Act. I also understand that my spouse has authority to specify a beneficiary without my knowledge or consent and that I will not receive any benefit under the Plan unless specified as a beneficiary by my spouse.

You represent that, in addition to providing the QJSA form of benefit, the Plan provides a company-paid survivor benefit (described below), to which the participant had earned a vested right. This company-paid survivor benefit provides monthly payments to “the surviving spouse of an active employee, the spouse at retirement of a former employee, or a survivor or survivors specified by [the participant] in such a manner as the Board of Benefits and Pensions may prescribe.” Plan, Section VI.A (1). You state that the Plan generally limits the categories of survivors whom the participant may designate to receive the company-paid survivor benefit to the following: (1) the employee’s spouse (with payments to minor children following the spouse’s death); (2) the employee’s minor children; or (3) a parent or stepparent of the employee.

In connection with his retirement, the participant designated his wife, together with their then-minor child, as the beneficiaries for the company-paid survivor benefit. That designation has remained in effect unchanged since it was executed. The participant began receiving monthly annuity benefits under the Plan at his retirement and has continued receiving such benefits since that time.

A state court some time later issued a divorce decree dissolving the marriage of the participant and his wife. Thereafter, a Nunc Pro Tunc Supplemental Divorce Decree, (the domestic relations order),(3) described a division of the participant’s benefits under the Plan. The domestic relations order assigned to the former wife, as alternate payee, a certain portion of the participant’s life annuity payments. The domestic relations order further provided that the former wife “shall be treated as a surviving spouse, as she was the Participant’s spouse at his retirement, and that [she] shall receive the employer paid survivor benefits as stated under [the plan].”

After the domestic relations order was submitted to the Plan, the Plan Administrator rejected the domestic relations order as not qualified with respect to the provision of survivor benefits, stating:

The order attempts to force the Plan to provide a type or form of benefit not otherwise available under the Plan. As explained in previous determination reports, there are no survivor benefits available for any alternate payee. There are no survivor benefits available for [the participant’s ex-wife]. The court cannot award the Company-paid survivor benefit to [the participant’s ex-wife] because she is not a Plan-qualified beneficiary. The court cannot award a non-existent benefit to an alternate payee.

* * * * *

At his retirement, [the participant] designated his spouse, [the participant’s former wife], as the beneficiary for the Company-paid survivor benefit. Pursuant to the terms of the Plan, the Company-paid survivor benefit can be paid only to a Plan- qualified beneficiary — spouse, minor children, parent, or stepparent, not a former spouse. At the time of his retirement, [the participant] designated his spouse and a minor child to receive the Company-paid survivor benefit. During the remaining 10+ years that the parties remained married, [the participant] controlled the beneficiary designation for the Company-paid survivor benefit. At any time during the remainder of the marriage, [the participant] could change the beneficiary to any other Plan-qualified beneficiary or to no one without [the participant’s former wife’s] consent.

(Emphasis original).

You ask whether the Plan is correct in concluding that, in ordering the company-paid survivor benefit to be paid to the participant’s former wife, the domestic relations order would require the Plan to provide a “type or form of benefit, or [an] option not otherwise provided” under the Plan, which is not permitted under section 206(d)(3)(D)(i) of ERISA. As explained below, it is the view of the Department that the Plan erred in reaching this conclusion.

Section 206(d)(1) of ERISA generally requires pension plans covered by Title I of ERISA to provide that plan benefits may not be assigned or alienated. Section 206(d)(3)(A) of ERISA states that section 206(d)(1) applies to an assignment or alienation of benefits pursuant to a “domestic relations order,” unless the order is determined to be a “qualified domestic relations order.” Section 206(d)(3)(A) further provides that pension plans must provide for payment of benefits in accordance with the applicable requirements of any QDRO.

Section 206(d)(3)(B) of ERISA defines the terms “qualified domestic relations order” and “domestic relations order” for purposes of section 206(d)(3) as follows:

(B) For purposes of [section 206(d)(3)] —

(i) the term “qualified domestic relations order” means a domestic relations order —

(I) which creates or recognizes the existence of an alternate payee’s right to, or assigns to an alternate payee the right to, receive all or a portion of the benefits payable with respect to a participant under a plan, and

(II) with respect to which the requirements of subparagraphs (C) and (D) are met, and

(ii) the term “domestic relations order” means any judgment, decree, or order (including approval of a property settlement agreement) which —

(I) relates to the provision of child support, alimony payments, or marital property rights to a spouse, former spouse, child, or other dependent of a participant, and

(II) is made pursuant to a State domestic relations law (including a community property law).

Section 206(d)(3)(D) specifies that a domestic relations order is qualified only if such order does not require (i) the plan to provide any type of benefit, or any option, not otherwise provided by the plan; (ii) the plan to provide increased benefits (determined on the basis of actuarial value); and (iii) the payment of benefits to an alternate payee which are required to be paid to another alternate payee under another order previously determined to be a qualified domestic relations order.

Section 206(d)(3)(F) of ERISA provides, with respect to the joint and survivor and pre- retirement annuity provisions in ERISA, that, “[t]o the extent provided in any qualified domestic relations order”:

(i) the former spouse of a participant shall be treated as a surviving spouse of such participant for purposes of section 205 (and any spouse of the participant shall not be treated as a spouse of the participant for such purposes), and

(ii) if married for at least 1 year, the surviving spouse shall be treated as meeting the requirements of section 205(f).

It is our view that section 206(d)(3)(F) does not, in itself, limit the scope of the survivor benefits that may be assigned to an alternate payee pursuant to section 206(d)(3)(B). Rather, the general scope of permissible assignment is defined by section 206(d)(3)(B) itself, as limited by sections 206(d)(3)(C) and 206(d)(3)(D).(4) Section 206 (d)(3)(B) provides broadly for the possibility of assigning not merely “benefits payable to a participant,” but “all or a portion of the benefits payable with respect to a participant under a plan.” In using this particular language, Congress made clear that the QDRO provisions are intended to enable State courts or agencies to assign any and all benefits payable under a plan that a participant had earned through employment.

Further, any assignment effected by a QDRO necessarily has the effect of requiring the substitution of an alternate payee for the individual (participant or beneficiary) who would otherwise be entitled to receive the benefit under the terms of the plan in question. The Plan’s conclusion that such a substitution would require the Plan to provide a “type or form of benefit, or any option, not otherwise provided” under the Plan, in violation of section 206(d)(3)(D), thus, proves too much. Such an argument would invalidate any assignment of benefits pursuant to a domestic relations order.

In this case, the alternate payee was the individual actually designated by the participant as his beneficiary to receive the company-paid survivor benefit. At his retirement, and until their subsequent divorce, the alternate payee was also within the class of individuals expressly entitled under the terms of the Plan to be named as beneficiary. The order did no more than preserve the alternate payee’s status as a spouse with respect to the company-paid survivor benefit when the divorce would otherwise have altered that status. The assignment effected by the order, thus, would not require the Plan to provide a type or form of benefit, or an option not otherwise provided under the Plan. It is the view of the Department that, under the circumstances of this case as you have described them, the plan administrator erred in concluding that an order that named a participant’s former spouse as beneficiary for the company-paid survivor benefit would violate the limitations imposed by section 206(d)(3)(D) and therefore could not constitute a QDRO.(5)

This letter constitutes an advisory opinion under ERISA Procedure 76-1, 41 Fed. Reg. 36281 (1976). Accordingly, this letter is issued subject to the provisions of that procedure, including section 10 thereof, relating to the effect of advisory opinions.

Sincerely,
Louis Campagna
Chief, Division of Fiduciary Interpretations
Office of Regulations and Interpretations


Footnotes

  1. Although the participant and his wife were married at the time he retired, they subsequently divorced. For the sake of clarity, and because the change in status is relevant to the analysis, this opinion refers to the participant’s former spouse variously (depending on the relevant time period) as either the participant’s wife or the participant’s former wife.

  2. The Department does not interpret the terms of individual pension plans and has relied, in reaching the conclusions expressed herein, on your representations as to the terms of the Plan and the manner in which those terms are interpreted by the Plan administrator. The Department takes no position regarding the correctness of the representations.

  3. An earlier order that had purported to assign the right of a surviving spouse to receive survivor benefits in the form of the qualified joint and survivor annuity (QJSA) under section 205 of ERISA (section 401(a)(11) of the Internal Revenue Code) to the participant’s former wife was rejected by the Plan as not qualified because the former wife had validly consented to the waiver of those rights. You represent that the former wife does not dispute that she properly waived her right under federal law to receive survivor benefits in the form of a QJSA.

  4. Section 206(d)(3)(F) provides an additional right that may be assigned to an alternate payee: the right to be treated as if the divorce had not occurred with respect to the survivor rights created by section 205 of ERISA. The section 205 rights include, but extend beyond, the right to receive the survivor portion of the joint and survivor annuity form of benefit payment that must be provided as the normal form of payment under a plan subject to section 205. Section 206(d)(3)(E) further permits alternate payees to be afforded the right to receive benefit payments as of a participant’s “earliest retirement age,” rather than when the participant is entitled to receive benefit payments.

  5. A domestic relations order, nonetheless, could not be deemed to be qualified if it assigned benefits that have already been paid or have been validly waived under a plan. For example, if an alternate payee has validly waived QJSA rights, as the participant’s former wife apparently did when the participant retired, a subsequently issued domestic relations order could not require a plan to provide QJSA rights to the alternate payee.