Archive for September, 2015

September 4, 2015

More Trouble with Pension Benefits After Death

In a previous post, we looked at the issue of the definition of a “spouse” under the Pension Benefits Act where a deceased had divorced and was living in a common law relationship with another partner.  One of the key takeaways from the case was the importance of designating beneficiaries under pension plans so that the intentions of the pensioner are clear.  The importance of designation was emphasized again in the recent Nova Scotia Court of appeal case of MacEachen v. Minnikin.

In that case, under a separation agreement spouse number 2 was to be designated as beneficiary under the deceased’s Canada Post pension and he was not to change that designation before such time as he might remarry.  If he did not remarry, spouse number 2 would remain as beneficiary.  If the pensioner did remarry, spouse number 2 agreed under the separation agreement that “she will execute any and all necessary documents in order to release her as a beneficiary in the aforementioned plan”.

As you might guess, the pensioner did remarry but took no action to either change the beneficiary designation with the plan administrator or to require spouse number 2 to execute any document(s) to release her as a beneficiary.  Following the pensioner’s death, spouse number 3 brought an action seeking entitlement to survivorship benefits under the pension on the basis of unjust enrichment.  Both the Court at first instance and the Court of Appeal found in favour of spouse number 2.  On a legal analysis, spouse number 3 was not able to establish the elements of “unjust enrichment”.  However, for our purposes, it is the factual findings of the court that illustrate the lesson from this case.

With respect to the separation agreement, the Court found that the provision dealing with a release of spouse number 2 as beneficiary did not act to create a change of beneficiary but required further action (i.e. the deceased doing something to get that release in writing).  Furthermore, under the separation agreement the pensioner retained control over when a beneficiary change would be requested under the plan.  He also knew that he would be required to advise the plan administrator in writing of a change of beneficiary.  The pensioner had taken steps to change beneficiary designations under an insurance policy so presumably had turned his mind to beneficiary issues in some manner.  Given these findings, the Court was loathe to make a finding that would overturn the written beneficiary designation under the plan.

Could a tighter drafting of the separation agreement have changed the outcome of this case; for example stating clearly that upon the pensioner remarrying, spouse number 2 is deemed to have released any interest in the pension? – perhaps.  The obvious answer though it is that, for estate planning purposes, all potential assets must be addressed in their own context and parties cannot rely on other contracts to govern entitlement.