Court Discusses the Right to Retirement Benefits in Florida Divorces

In Florida, income earned during the course of a marriage, including money placed in a retirement account, is generally considered marital property. When couples divorce, any marital property is typically subject to equitable distribution, but parties can waive their property rights via an agreement. A party that waives the right to marital property in a divorce action cannot later argue that their waiver does not apply based on a technicality, however. This was demonstrated in a recent opinion issued in a Florida case, in which the deceased husband’s estate sought enforcement of a marital settlement agreement to preclude the wife from recovering retirement plan benefits. If you want to end your marriage, it is smart to hire a knowledgeable Miami divorce attorney to help you seek a favorable outcome.

History of the Case

It is alleged that husband and wife married in 1988. The husband, a  television producer, contributed to a 401k plan that was governed by ERISA before and after the marriage. He designated the wife as the first beneficiary and his children as the second beneficiaries under the plan documents.  In 2017, the parties divorced. They developed a marital settlement agreement (the Agreement) that stated they both retained the sole right to their retirement plans and waived the right to recover proceeds from each other’s plans. The husband did not update his plan beneficiary forms, however. The court ratified the Agreement in the final dissolution of marriage.

Reportedly, the husband died two years later. His daughter from a previous marriage was named as his estate’s personal representative. She subsequently filed a claim for the 401k proceeds to be distributed to the estate. The wife made a competing claim, arguing that because she was still the first beneficiary under the plan documents and had not waived her right to “death benefits,” she was entitled to the proceeds. The daughter filed a motion to enforce the Agreement, but the magistrate ruled in favor of the wife. The daughter filed an exception, and that trial court sustained the exceptions and issued an order directing the wife to return the proceeds. The wife appealed.

The Right to Retirement Proceeds Following a Divorce

The court explained that the applicable provision of the Agreement, which was clear and unambiguous, clearly stated that both parties waived their rights to one another’s retirement benefits. The court found that this waiver included what the wife referred to as death benefits and that the enforcement of the Agreement was not barred due to an oversight on the husband’s behalf with regard to his beneficiary form.

Further, the court stated that the language of the Agreement was adequately explicit enough to override the beneficiary form, regardless of the fact that it was devoid of the phrase “death benefits.” In other words, those specific words were not needed to demonstrate waiver. As such, the trial court ruling was affirmed.

Speak to a Trusted Miami Attorney

Many parties in divorce actions choose to define property rights via agreements, but it is important for them to understand the terms and implications of their decision. If you are considering filing for divorce, you should contact an attorney to avoid unintentionally waiving your rights. The trusted Miami divorce lawyers of the Law Offices of Sandy T. Fox, P.A., are adept at handling dissolution actions, and if we represent you, we will work tirelessly on your behalf. Our office is in Aventura, and we regularly represent people in divorce actions in Miami. You can contact us through our form online or at 800-596-0579 to set up a meeting.





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