In many divorce cases, one spouse’s retirement benefits can be divided between the parties so that the other spouse receives a beneficial interest in the retirement plan. In such cases, the retirement plan administrator is notified of the division and when benefits are paid, they are paid to each spouse accordingly. It is important that the plan administrator be notified about the new division because if not, despite a court order, all of the benefits will still be paid to only one spouse.
It gets more complicated when the spouse with the retirement benefits dies, and names someone other then his ex-spouse as the beneficiary. Then, the surviving spouse gets nothing.
In Robinette v. Hunsecker, that’s exactly what happened. The parties never told the plan administrator that there was an agreement that the ex-wife would receive some of her former husband’s retirement benefits. He died, and named his second wife as beneficiary. The court held that since the parties had an agreement, it was inequitable for the second wife to receive the ex-wife’s benefits. The court ordered that all future benefits be paid in accordance with the parties’ agreement, and that the second wife had to pay to the ex-wife the amount of benefits she should have received. The courts don’t always save people from their own inaction, but in this case they did what the parties intended.