Appellate Division Rejects Claim That Marriage Creates a Presumptive Right to a Deceased Spouse’s Retirement Accounts

On March 9, 2015, I blogged about an Appellate Division case holding that marriage does not create a presumptive right to a deceased spouse’s life insurance benefits. That blog can be found here. In In re Estate of Matchuk, the Appellate Division extended that holding to funds in a deceased spouse’s retirement accounts.

In Matchuk, the decedent had named his sister as beneficiary of three retirement accounts during his tenure as a teacher in the 1980s. At the time, Mr. Matchuk was single.

In 1987, Mr. Matchuk got married, and remained married until his death 23 years later. In 2006, Mr. Matchuk changed the beneficiary designation of one of those three accounts to name his wife as beneficiary. In 2007, he was sent a notice from the retirement fund provider with information about how he could update beneficiary information; he took no action in response. In 2010, he died intestate. His widow filed a complaint seeking to be designated beneficiary of the two accounts that still named the sister as beneficiary.

During discovery, the widow conceded that she had not been named beneficiary on those two accounts, and that there were no documents demonstrating her husband’s probable intent to name her on the accounts. There was no evidence that Mr. Matchuk made oral statements that he intended to name his wife as beneficiary of these two accounts.

The trial court granted summary judgment dismissing the widow’s claims to the retirement accounts.

She appealed, claiming the right to those accounts by virtue of her status as Mr. Matchuk’s wife at the time of his death. She claimed that equitable principles should be applied and that the court should presume that her husband had intended to designate her as beneficiary on the accounts, based upon their long-term marriage.

The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court and rejected the widow’s claim.

It found that a designated beneficiary can only be divested by a change of beneficiary in the manner prescribed by the account policy. Evidence of an intent to make a beneficiary designation change is insufficient to effectuate the change, except in limited circumstances where substantial compliance, beyond just an oral statement of intent, has been made.

A copy of In re Estate of Matchuk can be found here – Matter of the Estate of John H. Matchuk

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