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Federal Law on Beneficiaries Overrides State Divorce Rules

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MARCH 26, 2001 VOLUME 8, NUMBER 39

Assume that Mr. and Mrs. Smith, happily married, sign wills leaving all their assets to one another. Some years later their marriage fails, and the Smiths divorce. Will their old wills still be valid?

Arizona, like many other states, has a provision that effectively revokes Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s wills. Each is treated as having died before the other, so whatever alternate provisions they have made will take effect instead. This seems fair and proper; we can assume that Mr. and Mrs. Smith no longer wish to leave everything to each other if they no longer live together. In fact, Arizona law goes further, and provides that the Smiths’ designation of life insurance beneficiaries, joint tenancy and other substitutes for wills are also invalidated.

Washington state law is similar, and so the results in that state should be about the same. If Mr. and Mrs. Smith (or, in the case offered for our current review, Mr. and Mrs. Egelhoff) get divorced, any designation of joint ownership or beneficiary designation is automatically revoked.

Donna Rae and David A. Egelhoff were divorced in 1994. Mr. Egelhoff was an employee at the Boeing Company, and had a company pension and life insurance policy. Both named his wife as beneficiary. Mr. Egelhoff was killed in an automobile accident two months after the divorce, before he had gotten around to changing the beneficiary designations.

Mr. Egelhoff’s two children from a prior marriage pointed to the Washington statute, and argued that they should receive both the life insurance and the pension benefits. The problem: both plans were covered by the Employee Retirement Security Income Act of 1974, popularly known as ERISA.

Most employer-provided plans that include pension and life insurance benefits are governed by ERISA. In order to protect workers from state variations, ERISA expressly provides that state law is ineffective in any attempt to determine ownership rights in the plans. The so-called “pre-emption” provision of ERISA overrides any state law to the contrary.

But, argued Mr. Egelhoff’s children, the Washington law did not really affect ownership of the retirement plan and life insurance. The Washington State Supreme Court agreed, and ordered the benefits paid to the children. Mrs. Egelhoff appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the state courts and ordered that the proceeds belonged to Mrs. Egelhoff. Mr. Egelhoff could have changed the beneficiary designations, but he would have to have done so in accordance with the strict provisions of the retirement plan and federal law. Washington’s state law (and almost certainly Arizona’s as well) failed to protect Mr. Egelhoff’s children from his failure to make the formal change. The Court’s holding only applies to benefits plans covered by ERISA, but since most retirement plans and company life insurance benefits are covered the effect is far-reaching. The state law that automatically rewrites a divorcing couple’s wills is still valid, but not necessarily the provisions relating to life insurance and pension rights. Egelhoff v. Egelhoff, March 21, 2001.

2 Responses

  1. I found this VERY interesting. I live in Pennsylvania, and was in the middle of divorce, where grounds had been established. Although we had filed, after grounds had been established, my husband and I did nothing to further things along for 2 years. During that Time, my husband died. I have been left as sole beneficiary to his Boeing 401K, yet his estranged children, and divorce attorney, are claiming that according to State law, and because grounds were found, that I am not entitled to that 401K, and that a judge will order me to pay back the to the estate, that money that he left me.

    I realize that you are based in Arizona, but have been searching for attorneys who have dealt with similar situations, and am looking for advice. I have contacted Boeings legal department, and they claim that they have followed the law to the letter, and that I am the sole beneficiary, and that the money belongs to me.
    I would greatly appreciate any feedback you can give me on this situation.

    Thank you,
    Martha McMonagle

    1. Martha:

      You should contact an experienced attorney in your state. You can find practitioners who know a thing or two about ERISA and beneficiary designations at the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel ( or the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys ( Both maintain a look-up tool to find practitioners who are geographically convenient for you. For this kind of question, we’d probably suggest you try ACTEC first, but NAELA members could be very qualified in the area.

      Good luck!

      Fleming & Curti, PLC
      Tucson, Arizona

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Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

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Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.