United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
E. Ott, Chief United States Magistrate Judge
Jacquetta Miller (“Jacquetta”) claims that she is
the lawful beneficiary of a Deferred Compensation Plan
account (the “Plan Account”) owned by her late
husband Maurice Miller (“Maurice”) and
administered by Defendant Nationwide Retirement Solutions,
Inc. (“NRS”). (Doc. 1-1 (“Complaint” or
“Compl.”)). NRS removed the action to this court
based on diversity jurisdiction (Doc. 1) and filed an answer
that also raised counterclaims and a complaint in
interpleader against Jacquetta and two new parties:
Maurice's ex-wife Virginia Miller
(“Virginia”) and his mother, Maple Miller
(“Maple”). (Doc. 4). Virginia and Maple, in turn,
filed counterclaims against NRS and Jacquetta, based on the
assertion that it is they, i.e., Virginia and Maple,
who are entitled to the proceeds of the Plan Account. (Doc.
court previously disposed of various pre-trial motions. The
court granted NRS's motion for summary judgment insofar
as NRS sought dismissal of all of Jacquetta's claims and
all of Virginia and Maple's counterclaims to the extent
they might impose independent liability upon NRS beyond
payment of the proceeds of the Plan Account, prejudgment
interest, or costs. The court also granted NRS's motion
for discharge from further liability to the claimants for the
proceeds of Maurice's Plan Account, with the
understanding that NRS formally remains a party and must pay
the proceeds to the successful claimant or claimants as
determined by the court, upon being ordered to do so. The
primary remaining issue is resolution of the competing claims
to the proceeds of the Plan Account. Accordingly, a trial was
conducted without a jury at the request of counsel.
(See Doc. 52 at 6).
and Maple each claim one-half of the proceeds of the Plan
Account as named beneficiaries upon the death of Maurice
together with costs and applicable interest owed by NRS. They
also assert a claim for attorney's fees and costs against
Jacquetta for filing a frivolous case pursuant to the Alabama
Litigation Accountability Act. See Ala. Code §
12-19-20. Jacquetta claims that she is the sole beneficiary
of the Plan Account because she and Maurice signed a
change-in-beneficiary form in December 2014 naming her as the
sole beneficiary of the Plan Account.
before the court is Virginia and Maple's motion in limine
(doc. 49), upon which the court deferred formally ruling
prior to trial since this was a non-jury case. In the motion,
they (1) seek to have this court prohibit introduction of
evidence that contradicts the NRS Plan document or that
purports “to set aside the designated beneficiaries set
out by the deceased, Maurice Miller” (id. at 1
& 3) and (2) argue that a Qualified Domestic Relations
Order (“QDRO”) was unnecessary in this case
(id. at 2). Jacquetta responds that she should not
be prohibited from offering testimony concerning the change
of beneficiary. (Doc. 50 at 1-5). She also argues that (1)
Virginia is not entitled to any contributions to the Plan
Account that were made after the date of the divorce decree
and (2) if the divorce decree controls, Virginia and Maple
“have failed, as a matter of fact and law, to introduce
any evidence whatsoever as to the ‘present value'
of Virginia Miller's claim, ” thus demonstrating a
failure of their claim. (Id. at 5-6). Still further,
Jacquetta asserts that because Virginia and Maple argue that
a QDRO is not necessary in this instance, Alabama Code §
30-4-17 effectuated a revocation of their claims and,
thereby, they have no claim to the Plan Account.
(Id. at 6-11). In their reply, Virginia and Maple
argue that any evidence offered by Jacquetta concerning
statements by Maurice are due to be excluded as hearsay.
(Doc. 51 at 1).
court will address the evidentiary issues presented by the
motion in limine, but will defer an analysis of the
substantive matters raised therein until the discussion of
the merits below. First, to the extent any aspect of the
motion in limine was not raised by objection at trial, it is
concerning the request to exclude any evidence contradicting
the NRS Plan document or “to set aside the designated
beneficiaries set out” by Maurice (id. at 1
& 3), the court finds the motion to be overly broad. To
the extent Virginia and Maple seek to exclude evidence that
tends to change the terms of the Plan document, the motion is
moot because counsel for Jacquetta acknowledge that the issue
is not the terms of the Plan itself, but whether there has
been an effective change of a beneficiary under the terms of
the Plan or whether there was substantial compliance with the
Plan so that the equities justify a finding for Jacquetta.
Thus, Jacquetta is not seeking to challenge the terms of the
Plan. To the extent the motion seeks to exclude any evidence
intended to set aside the designated beneficiaries, the
motion is denied. Such evidence, when properly authenticated,
is relevant to the issues in this case. Accordingly, the
motion in limine is denied to that extent.
Virginia and Maple argue that any evidence offered by
Jacquetta concerning statements by Maurice is due to be
excluded as hearsay. Because of the broadness of this issue,
and the importance of placing the evidence in context, the
court deferred ruling on this aspect of the motion prior to
trial. Instead, it afforded the parties the opportunity to
make necessary and appropriate objections during the trial of
the case. This was necessary because some purportedly
excludable testimony regarding statements by Maurice may be
relevant to the issue of Jacquetta's intent in bringing
this action when the court is evaluating and determining
Virginia and Maple's claim under the Alabama Litigation
Accountability Act. The trial findings herein have been made
with this understanding in mind.
TESTIMONY AND EVIDENCE
was employed by the City of Birmingham (“City”)
as a firefighter until his retirement in 2015. (R. 43,
He participated in a Deferred Compensation Plan that the City
sponsored while he was working for the City. (R. 44). NRS is
the administrator of that Plan. On October 30, 1990, Maurice
executed a Participation Agreement and Payroll Deduction
Authorization form naming his then-wife Virginia as
“Beneficiary Name 1” and his mother Maple as
“Beneficiary Name 2” of his Plan Account. (Exh.
He named his three children as equal contingent beneficiaries
should Virginia precede him in death. (Id.)
and Virginia had children who are now adults. (R. 60).
Maurice and Virginia divorced on June 26, 2002. (R. 61-62;
Exhs. 22 & 23). In the final divorce judgment, each
spouse was awarded “50% of both [of their] pension,
retirement and 401K plans.” (Exh. 22 at VI.B; R. 62).
The decree further provides:
Each party shall hire attorneys to jointly assist in the
preparation of all appropriate Qualified Domestic Relations
Orders [QDROs] for approval and execution by the Court. The
Court retains jurisdiction over the case until all
appropriate [QDROs] are executed.
That the [parties] hereby relinquish all their right, title
and interest or claim whatsoever with respect to said
personal and real property awarded to the other herein and
shall execute any and all paperwork necessary to relinquish
their right to said items to the other within thirty days of
demand by the other. That the [parties] shall indemnify and
hold harmless the other from the payment of any liens,
mortgages, etc., attached to said properties awarded to each
of them respectively except as specifically set out herein.
later married Jacquetta on December 11, 2009. (R. 45, 48).
She remained Maurice's wife until he died from cancer on
May 15, 2015. (R. 53; Exh. 25). They had a daughter who was
born while Maurice was married to Virginia. (R. 48).
November 24, 2014, Maurice and Jacquetta completed a
“DROP Benefit Election Form” with the City of
Birmingham Retirement System wherein Maurice elected to
roll-over his accrued benefits into an Individual Retirement
Arrangement with NRS. (Exh. 21 at 1-2). The benefits were valued
at $109, 216.82 at the time, and were, according to the
City's documents, a lump sum equal to 36 monthly
installments plus interest. (Id.)
to Jacquetta, during December 2014, she and Maurice met with
Jeremy White, the NRS Retirement Specialist assigned to the
Plan, at the fire station where Maurice worked. (R. 45-46).
They met with him intending to take the necessary steps to
ensure their daughter would be provided for in the event of
Maurice's death. (Id.) The purpose of the
meeting was to have Jacquetta listed as a beneficiary on
Maurice's Plan Account. (Id. at 46). At that
meeting, Jacquetta says, she provided White with her
driver's license and her Social Security card and she
signed a beneficiary form that made her the beneficiary. They
left that form with White. (Id. at 45-49). During
the trial, Jacquetta identified a blank “Beneficiary
Change Form” as the document she filled out and signed.
(Id. at 49; Ex.10). At the conclusion of the meeting
with White, Jacquetta was satisfied that she had been made
the beneficiary of the Plan Account. She further understood
that White was going to do whatever was necessary with the
form or forms. (R. 48). Neither she nor Maurice ever received
copies of the form or forms that were executed that day.
(Id. at 47). Additionally, they never received a
letter from NRS indicating that there had been a beneficiary
change. (Id. at 5 2-53).
testified, however, that he received never a change of
beneficiary form at any time prior to Maurice's death.
(R. 12, 20). He stated that the purpose of the December 9,
2014 meeting at the fire station was simply to roll the money
from the City of Birmingham to Maurice's Plan
Account. (Id. at 11-13, 26, 37). The only
form White had Maurice execute was an incoming asset form.
(Id. at 13, 28). White specifically testified that
he did not have Maurice complete any Beneficiary Change Form.
(Id. at 19-20; see e.g. Exh. 10). White did
not recall talking with Maurice or Jacquetta about any change
of beneficiaries. (R. 37). White also stated that Jacquetta
did not complete any forms. (Id.) White provided the
rollover document to the City so that the transfer of funds
could be made. (Id. at 29-31, 38-39). White
believed the approximate amount of the rollover was $109,
000. (Id. at 14, 39). Lastly, White stated that he
never received any change of beneficiary form from Maurice.
received the funds transfer on March 23, 2015, in the amount
of $109, 216.74. (Exh. 11 & 12). It was deposited into
Maurice's existing deferred compensation
plan that was authorized pursuant to Internal
Revenue Code § 457(b). The Plan Account was a part of
the 457(b) Plan. (R. 38; Exh. 2 at Nationwide358,
2015, following Maurice's death, Jacquetta, Virginia, and
Maple each executed and submitted to NRS respective claim
forms by which each asserted that she was the beneficiary of
Maurice's Plan Account. (See R. 22, 54, 62 &
72; Exh. 14, 15). At some time around June 2015, after
Maurice's death, Jacquetta met with White and completed
an alternate payee/beneficiary form. (R. 23-24, 39). White
acknowledged during his testimony that he made a mistake in
having Jacquetta complete the form under the circumstances.
(Id. at 25). He simply assumed she was the
beneficiary. (Id. at 40).
15, 2016, Virginia's attorney faxed a letter to NRS
advising it of Virginia's claim to the Plan Account
proceeds and requesting that a hold be put on them pending
submission of a QDRO. (R. 59, 63; Exh. 16). As a result of
the conflicting claims made by Jacquettta, Virginia, and
Maple, NRS placed a hold on the Plan ...