Are you going through a separation?  If so, you may be wondering how the separation, as opposed to a divorce, will affect your beneficiary status under your spouse’s life insurance policy or pension plan.

Below are some general rules to keep in mind regarding life insurance policies and pension plans during a separation. It’s important to note that these guidelines may differ for each situation, and due to the complicated nature of these topics, we advise that you consult an attorney early on in the process (separation and/or divorce).


  • Life Insurance – Generally, the named beneficiary under life insurance or annuity contracts can be changed by direction of the owner of the policy without notice to the beneficiary. If you’re going through a separation, and you were listed on your spouse’s life insurance policy, you will want to confirm that you remain listed as the beneficiary for the policy.
  • “Qualified” Retirement Plans – Most all private employer-sponsored retirement plans are subject to federal law that requires married employees to name their spouses beneficiary, and this cannot be changed without written spousal consent witnessed by a retirement plan official or signed before a notary public. These plans are “qualified” under the Internal Revenue Code giving the employers a tax deduction for contributions made on behalf of the employee. In this situation, if you are separated from your spouse but not divorced, and your spouse would like to remove you from their retirement plan, you will likely be made aware of this change because your spouse may need your written consent for such a change in the beneficiary designation.
  • “Non-Qualified” Retirement Plans – Some executive plans that are not qualified for tax deduction by the employer are not subject to this rule, and beneficiary interests, if any, could be changed without notice. Most typically, these non-qualified executive plans are available only to corporate offices or other highly compensated corporate employees. This situation could mean that your spouse could remove you from their retirement plan without notice to you.  You will want to confirm that you remain listed as the beneficiary on the plan.
  • State and Municipal Government Plans – Covering tens of thousands of state and local government employees, state and municipal government plans are not subject to the federal law that requires spousal beneficiary  designation. Under these government plans, the employee can remove his or her spouse as beneficiary with no notice to that spouse. In these cases, court action is likely required to obtain an order  restricting any changes in beneficiary designation.

If you’re going through a separation, and have questions about what this means for you, your spouse, and/or your children, our lawyers would be happy to meet with you to discuss your situation and assess your options. Contact us online or call our law firm at 412-261-4040.

The attorneys of Wilder Mahood McKinley & Oglesby, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, have experience in separation and divorce matters, and have provided valuable legal counsel and representation in these and other family law matters since 1978. Our founding partner, Joanne Ross Wilder, wrote the handbook used across the state by practitioners and judges in the family law arena.

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