(CN) - All it took was a phone call for a Xerox employee to change the beneficiary of his retirement plan from his ex-wife to his son, the 9th Circuit ruled Wednesday, reversing an award to the ex-wife.
Asa Williams Sr. retired in 2004 after more than 30 years of working for Xerox and saving money through its various retirement plans.
Two years earlier, Williams had named his then wife, Carmen Mays-Williams, beneficiary of his retirement accounts. By 2007, however, he had "telephonically undesignated" his now-ex-wife, in favor of his son from a previous marriage, Asa Williams Jr.
Williams Sr. called Xerox two more times, once in 2008, and again a few months before his death in May 2011, to make sure that his son and not his ex-wife would receive his benefits, but he never followed up by signing and returning beneficiary designation forms sent to him by the company.
Soon after Williams Sr.'s death, both Mays-Williams and Williams Jr. moved to claim the proceeds. Unsure of how to distribute the benefits, Xerox punted the issue to U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle in Tacoma, Wash.
In granting the ex-wife summary judgment, Settle found that Williams Sr.'s failure to fill out and return the designation forms undermined his attempts to legally change his beneficiary.
A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit reversed on Wednesday, noting that Xerox's "governing plan documents permit unmarried participants to change their beneficiary designations by telephone."
"In light of the evidence before us, including Xerox's call log from January 10, 2011, reflecting that Asa, Senior, called Xerox to change his beneficiary designation from Carmen to Asa, Junior, a reasonable trier of fact could determine that Asa, Senior, intended to change his beneficiary to Asa, Junior, and that his phone calls to Xerox constituted substantial compliance with the governing plan documents' requirements for changing his beneficiary designation," Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain wrote for the appeals panel.
Answering a question of first impression for the 9th Circuit, the panel also found that such beneficiary forms are not part of the "plan documents" that govern awards of benefits.
"Nothing in the record indicates that the beneficiary designation forms themselves constituted, or were in any way incorporated into, governing plan documents," O'Scannlain wrote. "Therefore, the district court erred in determining that Asa, Senior, was required to abide by the language contained in the forms - but not in the governing plan documents - to change his beneficiary designation from Carmen to Asa, Junior."
The panel sent the case back to Tacoma for further proceedings.
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