By: Ada Dolph and Jim Goodfellow

In Becker v. Mays-Williams, No. No. 13–35069 (9th Cir. Jan. 28, 2015), the Ninth Circuit was confronted with the issue of determining whether decedent Asa Williams, a long-time participant in his employer’s ERISA governed retirement savings plans, effectively changed his beneficiary designation from his ex-wife to his son from an earlier marriage. The Court concluded that to resolve the question, it would have to address a matter of first impression for the Ninth Circuit — whether beneficiary designation forms are plan documents.

Telephone call logs documented that after divorcing his ex-wife in 2006, the decedent had called each of the plans to instruct them to designate his son instead of his ex-wife as beneficiary. The decedent was sent and received beneficiary designation forms requesting that he confirm his selection of his son as beneficiary, but he did not return them. Following his death in 2011, both the ex-wife and the son filed competing claims for benefits. Before making any payment, the plans’ fiduciary filed an action interpleading the two parties and seeking a determination as to the proper beneficiary. The ex-wife moved for summary judgment, arguing that because the decedent failed to fill out and return the beneficiary designation forms, he did not designate his son as his beneficiary. The district court agreed, concluding that the beneficiary designation forms constituted plan documents that needed to be signed in order to change the beneficiary. The son appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which reversed.

To determine whether the beneficiary form constituted a “plan document” that dictated the beneficiary, the Ninth Circuit drew on its case law interpreting ERISA § 1024(b)(4), which governs which documents must be produced by plan administrators upon the request of a participant or beneficiary. ERISA §1024(b)(4) identifies specific documents that must be provided, such as the plan and summary plan description, and also requires that plan administrators provide “other instruments under which the plan is established or operated.” The Ninth Circuit has interpreted this catch-all category as including only those documents that “elucidate exactly where the participant stands with respect to the plan–what benefits [the participant] may be entitled to, what circumstances may preclude [the participant] from obtaining benefits, and what procedures [the participant] must follow to obtain benefits.” The Ninth Circuit noted that circuit precedent rejected a broader interpretation that included “all documents that are critical to the operation of the plan.” The Court reasoned that because the beneficiary designation forms provide no information as to where a participant stands with respect to the plan, but instead simply confirm the participant’s attempt to change the beneficiary, they are not plan documents that would govern an administrator’s award of benefits. (Interestingly, the Court made no mention of Cigna Corp. v. Amara, 131 S. Ct. 1866 (2011) in which the Supreme Court made a distinction between what constitutes the governing plan and other documents — such as a summary plan description — which contain only statements “about the plan”).

The ex-wife attempted to argue that the plan fiduciary had exercised its discretion — to which the Court should defer — to require participants to sign and return beneficiary designation forms, pointing to the forms’ language that in order to “finalize” and “validate” the beneficiary designation, the forms must be returned. The son argued that there was no indication that the third party administrator had such discretion, and there was also no evidence that the plan administrator actually required participants to return the forms to finalize a beneficiary designation. For its part, the Ninth Circuit concluded that even if there was discretion, the plans’ fiduciary failed to exercise it by instead filing an interpleader action. Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the claim would be reviewed under a de novo standard of review.

The Ninth Circuit then evaluated de novo whether the decedent complied with plan documents to change his designation from his ex-wife to his son. The Court noted that the plan documents did not require non-married participants to make their designations in writing. Indeed, the summary plan descriptions invited non-married participants to change beneficiary designations by telephone or by visiting a website. Because the evidence indicated that the decedent had called to change his beneficiary, and the plan documents did not preclude him from changing his beneficiary by telephone, decedent substantially complied with the plan documents to effect the change in beneficiary from his ex-wife to his son.

Other Ninth Circuit opinions faced with sorting governing plan documents from other documents have relied upon Amara for guidance. See, e.g., Skinner v. Northrop Grumman Ret. Plan B, 673 F.3d 1162 (9th Cir. 2012); Opdoerp v. Wells Fargo & Co. Long Term Disability Plan, 500 F. App’x 575 (9th Cir. 2012). Here, the Ninth Circuit appears to have applied a broader definition of “plan document” to include summary plan descriptions and trust agreements, but nonetheless concluded that the definition did not go so far as to include a beneficiary form.