Vanderkam v. Vanderkam, No. 13-5163 (D.C. Cir. 2015)Annotate this Case
John and Melissa married in 1984. John enrolled in his employer’s retirement plan and designated Melissa as the beneficiary of a qualified joint and survivor annuity. John retired in 1994. The survivor annuity irrevocably vested in Melissa; John began receiving benefits. In2002, they divorced, agreeing to a decree awarding John all “benefits existing by reason of [John’s] past, present, or future employment.” John remarried and sought to designate his new wife as the survivor annuity beneficiary. The plan advised John that this designation would be permissible if done by qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) that would not require the plan to increase benefits beyond actuarial estimates of John’s and Melissa’s life expectancies, 29 U.S.C. 1056(d)(3)(D). On John’s motion, a Texas court entered a purported QDRO divesting Melissa of all ownership interests in the survivor annuity. The employer terminated its pension plan. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) became the plan’s statutory trustee and determined that the supposed QDRO was invalid because it would require “a form of benefit, or [an] option, not otherwise provided under the plan” and because, unless waived in accordance with statutory procedures within 90 days, a spouse’s right to the survivor annuity irrevocably vests on the annuity start date. The district court upheld the determination and found John’s contract and unjust enrichment claims against Melissa preempted. The D.C. Circuit affirmed.