Hillman v. Maretta,
569 U.S. ___ (2013)

Annotate this Case



No. 11–1221



on writ of certiorari to the supreme court of virginia

[June 3, 2013]

     Justice Alito, concurring in the judgment.

     I concur in the judgment. Because one of the purposes of the Federal Employees’ Group Life Insurance Act of 1954 (FEGLIA) is to implement the expressed wishes of the insured, I would hold that a state law is pre-empted if it effectively overrides an insured’s actual, articulated choice of beneficiary. The challenged provision of Virginia law has that effect.

     By way of background, Va. Code Ann. §20–111.1(A) (Lexis Supp. 2012) provides that the entry of a divorce de-cree automatically revokes an insured’s prior designa- tion of his or her former spouse as the beneficiary of the policy. And where, as in this case, the insured remarries after the divorce and dies before making a new FEGLIA designation, the proceeds, under 5 U. S. C. §8705(a), are automatically paid to the insured’s former spouse. Under the provision of Virginia law at issue here, the surviving spouse is entitled to recover those proceeds from the former spouse. See Va. Code Ann. §20–111.1(D). Section 20–111.1(D) apparently requires this result even if the in-sured manifests a clear contrary intent, such as by providing specifically in a recent will that the proceeds are to go to another party—for example, the insured’s children by the former marriage. Because §20–111.1(D) overrides the insured’s express intent (whether that intent is expressed via a beneficiary designation or through other reliable means), I agree that it is pre-empted by FEGLIA.

     Interpreted in light of our prior decisions in Wissner v. Wissner, 338 U. S. 655 (1950) , and Ridgway v. Ridgway, 454 U. S. 46 (1981) , FEGLIA seems to me to have two primary purposes or objectives.

     The first is administrative convenience. It is easier for an insurance administrator to pay insurance proceeds to the person whom the insured has designated on a specified form without having to consider claims made by others based on some other ground. But §20–111.1(D) does not affect the initial payment of proceeds. It operates after the funds are received by the designated beneficiary, and it thus causes no inconvenience for those who administer the payment of FEGLIA proceeds.

     The second purpose or objective is the effectuation of the insured’s expressed intent above all other considerations. That was the basis for the decisions in Wissner and Ridgway, as I understand them. In both cases, there was a conflict between a person whom the insured had desig-nated as his beneficiary and another person whose claim to the proceeds was not based on the insured’s expressed intent, and in both cases, the Court held in favor of the designated beneficiary.

     The present case bears a similarity to Wissner and Ridgway in that petitioner’s claim depends upon a state stat-ute that automatically alters the ultimate recipient of a divorced employee’s insurance proceeds. To be sure, Virginia’s provision may well reflect the unexpressed preferences of the majority of insureds whose situations are similar to that of the insured in this case—that is, individuals who, after divorce and remarriage, fail to change a prior designation of a former spouse as the beneficiary of the policy. But FEGLIA prioritizes the insured’s expressed intent. And it is telling that, on petitioner’s theory, she would still be entitled to the insurance proceeds even if, for example, the insured had died shortly after executing a new will leaving those proceeds to someone else. This shows that her claim is based on something other than a manifestation of the insured’s intent. Because §20–111.1(D) operates as a blunt tool to override the insured’s express declaration of his or her intent, it conflicts with FEGLIA’s purpose of prioritizing an insured’s articulated wishes above all other considerations.

     In affirming the decision below, the Court goes well beyond what is necessary and opines that the party designated as the beneficiary under a FEGLIA policy must be allowed to keep the insurance proceeds even if the in-sured’s contrary and expressed intent is indisputable—for example, when the insured writes a postdivorce will specifically leaving the proceeds to someone else. See ante, at 11. The Court’s explanation is as follows: “Congress sought to ensure that an employee’s intent would be given effect only through the designation of a beneficiary or through the narrow exceptions specifically provided in the statute.” Ibid., n. 3. In other words, Congress wanted the designated beneficiary—rather than the person named in a later will—to keep the proceeds because Congress wanted the named beneficiary to keep the proceeds. Needless the say, this circular reasoning does not explain why Congress might have wanted the designated beneficiary to keep the proceeds even when that is indisputably contrary to the insured’s expressed wishes at the time of death. I am doubtful that any purpose or objective of FEGLIA would be honored by such a holding, but it is not necessary to resolve that question in this case.

     For these reasons, I concur in the judgment.

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