contract that existed between ComEd and her ex-husband as a result of the signing of the beneficiary designation form. She then asserts that the terms of the plan are also the terms of this separate contract. Plaintiff offers no authority, either legal or factual, to support her claim that a contract controlled by ERISA was formed as the result of ComEd's typing the term "irrevocable" on a designation form.
The assertion that ComEd and James formed a contract actually resembles the state law claims in Riemma v. Bekins Van Lines Co., 1996 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2387, 1996 WL 99899 (N.D.Ill.), where the plaintiff alleged a breach of an implied contract between employee and employer to diligently process claims, and Tesch v. General Motors Corp., 685 F. Supp. 1084 (E.D.Wis. 1988), where the plaintiff charged the administrator with negligent processing of beneficiary forms. While both courts held that ERISA preempted the plaintiffs' state law claims, they granted leave to amend to plead a cause of action under ERISA. Both plaintiffs filed amended complaints alleging under § 1132(a)(2) that their employers had breached their fiduciary duty by failing to adequately inform plan participants of how to change a beneficiary.
The decisions of the plaintiffs in those cases to bring actions for breach of fiduciary duty against an employer or plan administrator--instead of actions under § 1132(a)(1)(B)--highlight the first difficulty with the instant case. ComEd is the plan administrator. The court notes, because ComEd did not, that § 1132(a)(1)(B) actions to recover benefits can only be brought against the plan as an entity. Jass v. Prudential Health Care Plan, Inc., 88 F.3d 1482, 1490 (7th Cir. 1996); 29 U.S.C. § 1132(d)(2). Although ComEd generally asserted in its motion to dismiss that plaintiff did not allege what relationship ComEd had with the plan, it failed to pursue the issue in its motion for summary judgment, where the record indicates that ComEd is the plan administrator and the plan itself is Commonwealth Edison Employees' Life Insurance Plan.
There are serious flaws in plaintiff's case even if she had named the plan as a defendant. Under § 1132, plaintiff may prove that she is entitled to benefits only under the terms of the plan at issue. The bulk of plaintiff's brief--and defendant's response--is dedicated to the issue of whether Illinois law should be used to interpret those terms. Although the assumption is never clearly stated, in the discussion of the "terms of the plan," plaintiff is referring to the addition of the typed term "irrevocable" on the beneficiary designation form as support for her claim that the "terms" in the "controlling documents" entitle her to $ 50,000. Plaintiff offers no support, and indeed none exists, for this unstated assumption. Section 1104(a)(1)(D) requires plan administrators to discharge their duties "in accordance with the documents and instruments governing the plan." Besides looking to the plan language, administrators may also rely on plan summaries distributed to employees to the extent that the summaries do not contradict provisions of the plan itself. See, eg., Kolentus v. Avco Corp., 798 F.2d 949, 958 (7th Cir. 1986) (where summary was merely outline of plan and stated that formal text of plan governed, court looked to plan in the event of a conflict), cert. denied, 479 U.S. 1032, 93 L. Ed. 2d 832, 107 S. Ct. 878 (1987). A beneficiary designation form is not a plan document, and a typed term added to such a form is clearly not a term of the plan.
Without the term "irrevocable" as part of the contract itself, Rosemary's argument amounts to one that the court should use the beneficiary designation form as evidence that her husband intended to keep her as his permanent beneficiary and that Illinois law would support this finding.
There is no question that ERISA preempts this result. Claims for benefits under ERISA must be resolved in accordance with the written terms of the plan. See Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. v. Croom, 1993 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7169, 1993 WL 181883 (N.D.Ill.) (properly executed designation form controlled over evidence that participant intended to file a form designating a new beneficiary). The Seventh Circuit has rejected attempts to circumvent the terms of the plan and look to outside evidence or documentation to determine the beneficiary according to state law. In MacLean v. Ford Motor Co., 831 F.2d 723 (7th Cir. 1987), the issue was whether ERISA preempted state law governing testamentary transfers. The decedent had named a beneficiary in his will who was different from the beneficiary named according to the terms of his life insurance plan. The decedent's testator sued to force the plan to distribute the proceeds of the policy according to the terms of the will instead of according to the terms of the plan. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court's holding that "clearly, a state law which would change the beneficiary designated by the terms of an employee benefit plan is a law relating to the plan and as such would be superseded by ERISA." The properly executed beneficiary designation form overrode conflicting outside documentation. Id. at 728. This result occurred despite the clear intent of the participant to name a new beneficiary, which is absent from this case even if state law were applied. The holding in MacLean indicates that when determining who is the proper beneficiary, state law that results in a different beneficiary than would be found under federal law is preempted. Id. According to policy GL-506002, employees could change previously designated beneficiaries by written request. There is no doubt that James did so in June 1988. Life insurance proceeds must be made to the beneficiary listed on properly executed designation forms. To hold otherwise would be to force policy administrators to delve beyond the properly executed designation forms to determine the proper beneficiary. "It would be counterproductive to compel the Policy administrator to look beyond those designations into varying state laws regarding wills, trusts and estates, or domestic relations to determine the proper beneficiaries of Policy distributions." Krishna v. Colgate Palmolive Co., 7 F.3d 11, 16 (2nd Cir. 1993) (providing a review of ERISA cases where courts rejected attempts to incorporate state law concepts into disputes over the proper beneficiary and held that the terms of the plan controlled).
As a final argument, plaintiff states that "the issue thus devolves to what effect, if any, the two decrees entered in the Riordan's domestic relations cases may have had on Rosemary's designation as James' irrevocable beneficiary." If plaintiff intends to assert that her ex-husband could not change her as his beneficiary because she was an irrevocable beneficiary under Illinois law, the court finally has an issue before it that is squarely dealt with in ERISA case law although it is curiously absent from the parties' briefs. An important exception to ERISA's preemption of state law governing the designation of beneficiaries exists in the arena of domestic relations. 29 U.S.C. § 1056(d)(3)(B). Under § 1056, this exception exists when a state court issues a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) that "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." § 1056(d)(3)(B)(i).
A QDRO overrides a participant's designated beneficiary if it meets specific statutory requirements, which include providing the participant's and beneficiary's mailing addresses, naming the specific plan to which the QDRO applies, and specifying the percentage distribution between multiple beneficiaries. 29 U.S.C. § 1056(C); Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. v. Wheaton, 42 F.3d 1080, 1083 (7th Cir. 1994). A state divorce decree that does not meet the above qualifications is preempted by ERISA and therefore cannot alter a properly designated beneficiary. Id. Under ERISA's statutory scheme, "a plan administrator must investigate the marital history of a participant and determine whether any domestic relations orders exist that could affect the distributions of benefits." Fox Valley & Vicinity Construction Workers Pension Fund, 897 F.2d 275, 282 (Easterbrook, dissenting).
Plaintiff charges that when James executed the form designating her as the "irrevocable" beneficiary, he could change this designation only pursuant to a subsequent court order. This argument is an attempt to avoid the requirements of a QDRO. Neither the separation decree nor the divorce decree qualifies as a QDRO as to James' life insurance policy. Because no such order exists, plaintiff cannot claim that she is entitled to plan benefits as a result of the separation decree and the subsequent placement of the term "irrevocable" on the designation form. To allow an additional exception such as this would render void the strict requirements of the QDRO exception to ERISA preemption. See National Automobile Dealers & Associates Retirement Trust v. Arbeitman, 89 F.3d 496, 502 (8th Cir. 1996) (failure to follow ERISA's specific waiver requirements was "merely an attempt to evade the clear statutory requirements" (citations omitted)). Without a QDRO directing him to do so, James had no obligation to keep plaintiff as the beneficiary of his life insurance policy. His subsequent change in beneficiary, to his second wife Irene, was executed according to the terms of the plan and is therefore valid.
For the foregoing reasons, the court finds that plaintiff has failed to establish that she was the proper beneficiary of her ex-husband's life insurance policy and entitled to $ 50,000 under the terms of the plan.
ORDERED: Defendants' motion for summary judgment is granted and plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is denied.
George W. Lindberg
United States District Judge
DATED: DEC 24 1996