DeRyke v. Teets, S10A0710
*All courts mentioned are at the state level.
- Husband and Wife entered into a settlement agreement which provided that each party waived all of his or her right, title, and interest in and to, among other things, employment benefit plans.
- The settlement agreement was incorporated into their final judgment and decree of divorce which was entered on September 25, 2008.
- Five days after the divorce, Wife committed suicide, and died intestate.
- Husband then made a claim for Wife’s benefits by filling out a beneficiary claim form with her former employer. Wife’s father, on behalf of Wife’s estate, also made a claim for those same benefits.
- The insurance company denied the father’s claim because Husband was the named beneficiary of record. Husband filed a declaratory action against the father, as estate administrator, in the Northern District of GA, seeking declarations that Husband be permitted to obtain and retain all of these benefits.
- The father then filed this state court action, an application for citation of contempt, against Husband asserting that Husband had unambiguously waived his right to retain any of Wife’s benefits by virtue of the settlement agreement, and that he violated the final decree by making a claim for the benefits and by failing to execute the instruments necessary to give full force to the settlement agreement.
- The trial court found that the settlement agreement was unambiguous and that Wife had the opportunity to change the employee benefit designation form but did not do so, and there was no evidence to show that she did not intend to confer the benefits upon Husband, and therefore, there was no willful violation for the agreement for which Husband could be held in contempt.
- The Supreme Court reversed, however, and held that the settlement agreement provisions unambiguously expressed the intent of the parties that the beneficiary spouse is releasing any and all interest in the benefits at the time of divorce, and as such the agreement operated as a complete waiver of the Husband’s beneficiary designation.
- Even though Wife never changed the beneficiary status, this Court held that there was no affirmative act by Wife so as to constitute an attempt to counter or override the relinquishment of rights or claims under the settlement agreement.
- The Supreme Court explained that there was only approximately a month’s time between Husband’s filing for divorce/execution of the settlement agreement and the granting of divorce, and less than a week after the divorce when Wife took her own life.
- The Supreme Court further noted that the opportunity to make the beneficiary change was severely limited, and speculation of motivation for the failure to act cannot and should not substitute for concrete action on the part of the Wife.
- Jordan J. Hendrick for appellant
- Mary A. Stearns-Montgomery for appellant
- Jason S. Adler for appellee
- Robert J. Kaufman for appellee
- Vito S. I. Loiacono for appellee
Fulton Superior Court; Judge Gail S. Tusan