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Supreme Court Backs Ex-Wife Designee

By Armin U. Kuder


The Supreme Court has again affirmed that federal programs can preempt state laws that establish rules in connection with divorce.  On June 2, 2013, the Court held that a Virginia statute was trumped by a deceased Federal employee’s designation of life insurance benefits.  Virginia law provided that the life insurance went to the surviving widow.  However, the employee had never changed his designation of beneficiary form, which named his former wife.  Following other decisions of similar import, the Supreme Court said that the federal insurance plan had to look to the designation of beneficiary form and not ascertain rights under state law. There are two lessons to be learned.  The first is specific to the problem.  After any divorce settlement or order of court, it is important to follow through to ensure performance, particularly if life insurance, death benefits and retirement benefits are involved.  This is true with federal programs and other rights as well.  The second lesson is that notwithstanding a time-honored tradition that domestic relations laws are a matter for states, and not the federal government, in fact, the federal government and even the Supreme Court, are becoming more and more involved, and important. We are waiting for the Supreme Court to rule soon on questions affecting single-sex marriages and couples. With the rapidly changing “modern family,” there will be many more challenges to the traditional hands-off policy.

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