In Becker v. Williams, — F.3d –, 2015 WL 348872 (9th Cir. Jan. 28, 2015), the plan participant called the plan administrator to change the beneficiary of his pension plans from his ex-wife to his son. His employer sent him beneficiary change forms, but he never completed them in the years before he died. After his death, both the son and ex-wife claimed the benefits, and the employer interpleaded.

The plan in question stated that an employee could “call the Xerox Benefits Center … to complete or change [his] beneficiary designation at any time.” The SPD stated that “a valid beneficiary designation must be on file.”

The district court granted summary judgment for the ex-wife, holding that the beneficiary change forms were plan documents that the decedent was required to sign. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit disagreed, in an issue of first impression. The court held that “plan documents,” as that term is used in 1104(a)(1)(D), incorporates only documents “that provide information as to where the participant stands with respect to the plan, such as an SPD or trust agreement [quotation marks and brackets omitted]” The beneficiary change forms, in contrast, “simply confirm the participant’s attempt to change his designated beneficiary[.]” The court further held that none of the actual plan documents incorporated the beneficiary designation forms so as to bring them into the category of plan documents.

Next, the Ninth Circuit rejected the ex-wife’s argument that the plan administrator, by sending the forms to the ex-husband, had exercised its discretion to require their execution. The court held that the fact that the administrator had filed an interpleader, rather than awarding benefits to one of the claimants, meant that it had “impliedly declined to exercise any discretion” in determining whether the beneficiary change was valid. Therefore, the court reviewed the beneficiary question de novo.

On that de novo review, the Ninth Circuit held that there was nothing in the plan documents requiring a signed beneficiary designation form; the employer’s log of the employee’s call to make his son the beneficiary was sufficient to raise a question of fact about the proper beneficiary. Therefore, the court reversed the grant of summary judgment for the ex-wife, and remanded for further proceedings.