• Paul M. Sullivan, Jr.

The No Name QDRO

" What's in a name ? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. . . ." Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II.

Finding unpersuasive three decisions of other federal courts which held or suggested that to be a QDRO ( a qualified domestic relations order) a domestic relations order must specify each plan by name, the 10th Circuit held that ExxonMobil was wrong to deny a claim for life insurance benefits from the ERISA benefit plan based on the divorce decree's not having specified the name of the plan.

ExxonMobil also denied the claim, because the divorce decree did "not specify the amount of insurance to carry." That was wrong also.

When Stela Festini-Steele and Billy Steele divorced in 2014, they filled out a Separation Agreement. They used a Separation Agreement form created by the Colorado Judicial Department for use in the Courts of Colorado. The Divorce Decree incorporated the Separation Agreement form.

The form provides a series of boxes to check and tells the parties to check all that apply. The form read: "The parties agree to the following terms relating to all life insurance counts." Stela and Billy checked that box.

They then checked a box marked "Other." In the blank below it they stated: "The Petitioner Billy R. Steele will carry life insurance on Co-Petitioner Stela Festini-Steele until daughter A. S. is 18 years of age."

At the time, Billy worked for ExxonMobil. In 2017, after remarrying, Billy died in a car accident. A. S., Billy and Stela's daughter was then four years old.

If a DRO is a QDRO, the state court order is exempt from ERISA preemption. Plan benefits then are payable to the "alternate payee." Stela applied to ExxonMobil for Billy's life insurance benefits, but ExxonMobil denied her benefit claim.

The 10th Circuit held that it is necessary to clearly specify each plan to which the order applies, but that does not mean that the plan has to be identified by name. The court in a footnote found "unpersuasive" other federal courts' decisions which held or suggested that identifying the plan by name was necessary.

As to stating the amount of the insurance, as ExxonMobil required, the Court held that all means all. That statement is repeated four times in the course of the opinion.

See Steele v. ExxonMobil Corp., No. 20-1052 (10th Cir. Feb. 18, 2021).

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