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Jones v. Teacher Retirement System of Texas

Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin

September 18, 2019

Alice M. Jones, Appellant
v.
Teacher Retirement System of Texas, Appellee

          FROM THE 459TH DISTRICT COURT OF TRAVIS COUNTY NO. D-1-GN-18-001176, THE HONORABLE DUSTIN M. HOWELL, JUDGE PRESIDING

          Before Chief Justice Rose, Justices Kelly and Smith

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          CHARI L. KELLY, JUSTICE.

         Alice M. Jones appeals the district court's order affirming an order of the Board of Trustees of the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) that denied her request to be recognized as the beneficiary of her former husband's death benefits. We will affirm.

         BACKGROUND

         Dwight Phillips was employed by Texas Tech University and was an active member of TRS when he died in March 2015. In 1977, Phillips had designated Jones, to whom he was married at the time, as the primary beneficiary for death benefits payable by TRS in the event of his death. Phillips and Jones divorced in December 2008. The divorce decree recited

[T]he parties have entered into a written agreement as contained in this decree by virtue of having approved this decree as to both form and substance. To the extent permitted by law, the parties stipulate this agreement is enforceable as a contract. The court approves the agreement of the parties as contained in this Final Decree of Divorce.

In the section of the divorce decree addressing the division of the marital estate, the divorce decree provides that Phillips is awarded

The sums, whether matured or unmatured, accrued or unaccrued, vested or otherwise, together with all increases thereof, the proceeds therefrom, and any other rights related to any profit-sharing plan, retirement plan, Keogh plan, pension plan, employee stock option plan, 401(k) plan, employee savings plan, accrued unpaid bonuses, disability plan, or other benefits existing by reason of the husband's past, present, or future employment with Texas Tech University (Teacher Retirement System of Texas[)].

         The decree states that Jones "is divested of all right, title, interest, and claim in and to that property." At no time after the divorce decree was entered did Phillips send a new beneficiary designation form to TRS. In October 2012, Phillips submitted to TRS a form titled "Request for Estimate of Retirement Benefits." In answer to the question "Whom do you plan to name as beneficiary at retirement?" Phillips wrote "undecided."

         After Phillips died, TRS sent letters to Jones and to the executor of Phillips's estate (his brother). The letter to Jones, dated April 2, 2015, stated, in pertinent part:

TRS records show that you were designated as the primary beneficiary of this account.
Legislation passed during the 75th Legislative Session added Section 824.101(g) of the Texas Government Code. This section provides that the receipt by TRS of a certified copy of a divorce decree between a TRS member or annuitant and a designated beneficiary revokes any designation of the former spouse as a beneficiary of the death benefits now payable. The law applies if the designation was effective before the date of divorce. If Section 824.101(g) would prohibit payment of the death benefits to you, please forward a certified copy of the divorce decree to TRS within 30 days of the date of this letter.

         TRS's letter to the executor of Phillips's estate contained the identical second paragraph, except for substituting the words "payment to the beneficiary" for the words "payment of the death benefits to you." The letter to the executor also included the following sentence: "In the absence of a certified copy of a decree of divorce, payment will be made to the designated beneficiary as required by law." The letter also advised the executor that "a certified copy ...


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