Phone Call Enough to Switch Pension Beneficiaries

Even thought his late father never signed the form making his son beneficiary of his pension, Asa Williams Sr. did make that wish clear in a telephone call to his employer, and that may be enough to award his son the benefits, a federal appeals court said.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the award of Xerox Corp. pension benefits to Williams ex-wife finding there was a triable issue of whether an oral designation of his son as the new beneficiary should prevail.

“Nothing in the governing plan documents prevents unmarried participants from designating beneficiaries by telephone call,” the court wrote.

In 2004, Williams retired from Xerox after 30 years and had a number of retirement and savings plans subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

He designated his wife Carmen Mays-Williams as beneficiary in 2002 but following his divorce in 2006 attempted to change his designated beneficiary from his ex-wife to his son by a prior marriage, Asa junior.

In a 2007 telephone call he specifically designated his son as beneficiary, according to the court and gave instructions to change the plan.

But Williams never signed the final forms to make the change.

He died in 2011 and his ex-wife filed a claim as beneficiary of the Xerox plans, while his son filed a competing claim.

U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle in Spokane, Washington sided with the ex-wife.

But the 9th Circuit panel reversed and sent the case back to Settle.

“In sum, nothing in the record indicates that the beneficiary designation forms themselves constituted, or were in any way incorporated into, governing plan documents,” the court 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.”

Case: Becker v. Williams, No. 13-35069


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