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Sun Life Assurance Co. of Canada v. Jackson

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

December 13, 2017

Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Richard E. Jackson; Sierra N. Jackson, individually and as the personal representative on behalf of the Estate of Bruce D. Jackson, Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued: November 28, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio at Dayton. No. 3:14-cv-00041-Walter H. Rice, District Judge.

         ARGUED:

          Joshua Bachrach, WILSON ELSER, MOSKOWITZ EDELMAN & DICKER LLP, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for Appellant.

          James D. Brookshire, DUNGAN & LEFEVRE CO., LPA, Troy, Ohio, for Appellee Sierra N. Jackson.

          Eirik Cheverud, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF LABOR, Washington, D.C., for Amicus Curiae.

         ON BRIEF:

          Joshua Bachrach, WILSON ELSER, MOSKOWITZ EDELMAN & DICKER LLP, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for Appellant.

          James D. Brookshire, Glen R. McMurray, DUNGAN & LEFEVRE CO., LPA, Troy, Ohio, for Appellee Sierra N. Jackson.

          Stephanie Lewis, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF LABOR, Washington, D.C., for Amicus Curiae. Richard E. Jackson, Boise, Idaho, pro se.

          Before: GILMAN, SUTTON, and STRANCH, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          SUTTON, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Bruce Jackson married Bridget Jackson in 1993, and Sierra Jackson, their only child, arrived in 1995. They divorced in 2006. In their separation agreement, Bruce and Bridget agreed to maintain any employer-related life insurance policies for the benefit of Sierra until she turned 18 or graduated from high school. At the time, Bruce had an employer-sponsored life insurance policy that listed his uncle, Richard Jackson, as the sole beneficiary. Bruce never changed the beneficiary of the policy to Sierra before he died in 2013. Litigation ensued, and the district court ordered Sun Life to pay the life insurance proceeds to Sierra. Because the divorce decree suffices as a qualified domestic relations order that "clearly specifies" Sierra as the beneficiary under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, 29 U.S.C. § 1056(d)(3)(C), we affirm.

         I.

         In 2003, Bruce Jackson signed up for a life insurance plan sponsored by his employer, Samaritan Health Partners, and governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, better known as ERISA. Sun Life Assurance Company took over management of Bruce's insurance policy in 2008. Bruce died in 2013. At his death, Bruce was insured for $48, 000 in basic life insurance and $191, 000 in optional life insurance. The question is whether Richard Jackson, Bruce's uncle, or Sierra Jackson, Bruce's only child, receives the money.

         When Bruce signed up for the life insurance policy in 2003, he listed Richard as its sole beneficiary. When Bruce and Bridget divorced in 2006, their divorce decree incorporated the following provision:

         Article IX: Life Insurance

In order to secure the obligation of the parties to support their child during her minority, Father and Mother shall maintain, unencumbered, all employer-provided life insurance, now in existence at a reasonable cost, or later acquired at a reasonable cost, naming their minor child as primary beneficiary during her minority; and the obligation to do so shall continue until she . . . ...

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