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When you sign a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement in which you agree not to be the beneficiary of a 401(k) retirement plan, does that extinguish your spousal rights to it?
To the surprise of divorced couples and family law attorneys alike, the Eighth Circuit has ruled that no, it does not extinguish your rights. You still may have a right to the 401(k).
In its decision, the appeals court ruled that a postnuptial agreement in which each party expressed "irrevocable consent" to a change of beneficiary of the other's retirement plan did not constitute a waiver of the spousal right to benefit from such plans.
Michael Cox married his wife Kathy not once, not twice, but three times. Before taking the plunge the third time around, in 2010, they signed a postnuptial agreement 20 days after the ceremony.
The agreement stated that Kathy "agree[d] to properly execute a waiver" to Michael's retirement plan and "irrevocably consent[ed]" to the change in beneficiary. (Michael named his parents as beneficiaries.)
A mere 14 months later, they got divorced... again. [Insert your feigned shock here.]
But before the divorce was finalized, Michael passed away. Though Michael named his parents as his beneficiaries, Kathy refused to give up her spousal rights, which took the matter to court. The lower court ruled for Kathy in a summary judgment motion.
The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 is a federal law that sets forth requirements for pension plans in the private industry. A spouse is entitled to be the beneficiary, unless he or she elects to waive that right.
The question here was whether Kathy actually ever waived her rights. The bones of contention for the court were:
In the end, the death knell for the postnuptial agreement was that ERISA has "strict compliance requirements" for waiving spousal rights. And this agreement simply didn't follow them.
Based on the Eighth Circuit's decision, it seems the consent to waiver itself needs notice, acknowledgement and witnesses sans language contemplating future executions. The waiver can't piggyback on the notice, acknowledgment and witnesses of the executed marital agreement.
To play it safe, have a separate waiver form.
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.