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Anheuser-Busch Companies Pension Plan v. Laenen

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

February 16, 2017

ANHEUSER-BUSCH COMPANIES PENSION PLAN, Plaintiff,
v.
BETH A. LAENEN, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          CATHERINE D. PERRY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Beth A. Laenen and her husband, Frank Laenen, divorced in November 2010. Frank remarried in August 2011 and died in February 2012. At the time of his death, Frank was a participant in the Anheuser-Busch Companies Pension Plan. In this ERISA interpleader action, Beth claims that she is entitled to one-half of Frank's Plan benefits under the terms of a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) entered March 16, 2015 in Missouri state court. Frank's surviving spouse, Jennifer R. Laenen, disagrees and contends that Beth is entitled to no Plan benefits given the plan administrator's determination that the March 2015 domestic relations order is not qualified under ERISA. The parties have now filed cross motions on whether the March 2015 Order is a QDRO under ERISA. I conclude that the March 2015 Order does not qualify as a QDRO under ERISA because it does not clearly specify either the amount or percentage of benefits to be paid to Beth, or the number of payments to be made.

         Background

         On November 12, 2010, the Circuit Court of Franklin County, Missouri, entered a Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage, dissolving the 30-year marriage of Frank and Beth Laenen. The Judgment incorporated the terms of Frank and Beth's Separation Agreement, which included a provision that Beth receive “One-half (1/2) of [Frank's] pension upon [Frank's] retirement, unless [Beth] remarries.” ECF No. 9-3 at 12.

         At the time of Frank's death, he was married to Jennifer and no QDRO had been written instructing the Plan to direct a portion of Frank's pension to Beth. In 2013, against Jennifer's objection, the state court entered Beth's proposed QDRO granting her half of Frank's accrued pension as of their divorce. ECF No. 1-2 at 2. However, the Missouri Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, finding that the entered QDRO improperly modified the terms of the Separation Agreement in omitting the condition of Beth's marital status on her right to collect her share of Frank's pension. ECF No. 38-1 at 9. In March 2015, the Franklin County Circuit Court entered a new order (March 2015 Order) “intended to constitute a Qualified Domestic Relations Order” assigning to Beth “an amount equal to 50% of [Frank's] Accrued Benefit under the Plan as of November 12, 2010, so long as [Beth] remains unmarried.” ECF No. 9-8 at 2.

         The March 2015 Order was submitted to the plan administrator for approval, but the administrator determined it not to be “qualified” under ERISA given that 1) Beth's status under the Order was as a “conditional” alternate payee, dependent on her future marital status; 2) the Order required the plan administrator to continually monitor Beth's marital status and make ongoing determinations as to benefit entitlement; and 3) the Order did not specify the number of payments or the time period to which the Order applied, given the open-ended condition and need for ongoing monitoring of Beth's marital status. ECF No. 1, ¶ 23.

         Both Beth and Jennifer made claims to the Plan for payment of Frank's Plan benefits - with Beth seeking half of the Plan benefits accrued as of November 12, 2010, and Jennifer seeking all of the benefits. Given these conflicting claims, the Plan brought this action in interpleader requesting that the Court determine who is entitled to the benefits and to “enter an order that is qualified under ERISA.” ECF No. 1, ¶ 28. Beth and Jennifer have filed counterclaims against the Plan and crossclaims against each other, each asserting that she is entitled to her respective portion of the Plan benefits and requesting that I award the benefits accordingly. Before me now is the question of whether the Franklin County Circuit Court's Order entered March 16, 2015, is a QDRO under ERISA.

         Discussion

         For a former spouse to have an enforceable interest in a participant's ERISA-qualified plan, there must be a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) in place. A QDRO is an express statutory exception to the anti-alienation provisions required for pensions governed by ERISA. 29 U.S.C. § 1056(d)(1).

A QDRO is a type of domestic relations order that creates or recognizes an alternate payee's right to, or assigns to an alternate payee the right to, a portion of the benefits payable with respect to a participant under a plan. A domestic relations order, in turn, is any judgment, decree, or order that concerns the provision of child support, alimony payments, or marital property rights to a spouse, former spouse, child, or other dependent of a participant and is made pursuant to a State domestic relations law (including a community property law). A domestic relations order must meet certain requirements to qualify as a QDRO.

Boggs v. Boggs, 520 U.S. 833, 846 (1997) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). If a domestic relations order is determined to be qualified as a QDRO under ERISA, the affected plan is obligated to comply with its terms. 29 U.S.C. § 1056(d)(3)(A).

         “The primary responsibility for determining whether a [domestic relations order] is a QDRO rests with the plan itself.” Green v. AT & T, Inc., No. 4:07 CV 1537 DDN, 2009 WL 1161576, at *11 (E.D. Mo. Apr. 29, 2009) (citing 29 U.S.C. § 1056(d)(3)(G); Trustees of the Dirs. Guild of Am.-Producer Pension Benefits Plans, 234 F.3d 415, 420 (9th Cir. 2000)). In making this determination, a plan is not permitted “to look beneath the surface of the order.” Blue v. UAL Corp., 160 F.3d 383, 385 (7th Cir. 1998). “Whether a domestic relations order qualifies as a QDRO depends on the language of the order itself; the subjective intentions of the parties are not controlling.” Hawkins v. Comm'r of Internal Revenue, 86 F.3d 982, 989-90 (10th Cir. 1996).[1]

         My review of the plan administrator's decision that the March 2015 Order was not a QDRO enforceable under ERISA is de novo because that decision involved interpretation of the circuit court's order but not interpretation of the Plan's terms. Hogan v. Raytheon, Co., 302 F.3d 854, 856 (8th Cir. 2002). I must make my own determination as to whether this domestic relations order is a QDRO. Indeed, ERISA itself contemplates this circumstance. 29 U.S.C. §1056(d)(3)(H)(i) (addressing action to be taken by plan administrator during period in which issue of whether domestic relations order is a QDRO is being determined “by the plan administrator, by a court of competent jurisdiction, or otherwise”) (emphasis added); see also Green, 2009 WL 1161576, at *11. Like the plan administrator, I am not permitted to look beyond the terms of the domestic relations order when determining whether it is a QDRO.

         To be an enforceable QDRO, the requirements of 29 U.S.C. § 1056(d)(3)(C) and (D) must be met, including that the ...


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