BENJAMIN R. STRAUSS, in his capacity as Executor of the Estate of Charles M. Strauss
BRENDA K. MALLICOAT
Providence County Superior Court
For Plaintiff: Benjamin C. Caldwell, Esq. Paul M. Sanford, Esq.
For Defendant: Jeffrey H. Gladstone, Esq. Robert K. Taylor, Esq.
In cross Motions for Summary Judgment pursuant to Super. R. Civ. P. 56 (Rule 56), the parties ask the Court to interpret the terms of a Property Settlement Agreement (the PSA) entered into by Charles M. Strauss (Mr. Strauss or Decedent) and Brenda K. Mallicoat (Ms. Mallicoat or Defendant) at the time of their divorce. The specific issue presented is as follows: Is a designated beneficiary of retirement accounts, who agreed in the PSA that such accounts are awarded to her spouse "free of all claims, " entitled to the proceeds of the accounts if her former spouse failed to change the beneficiary designation prior to his death? The Court believes our Supreme Court has never addressed this question. For the reasons set forth below, the Court concludes that the answer in this case is she is not.
Facts and Travel
Ms. Mallicoat and Mr. Strauss married on October 11, 2002 and divorced in 2008. Their marriage produced no children, but each had grown children from prior marriages. As part of their divorce proceedings, Ms. Mallicoat and Mr. Strauss entered into the PSA on March 20, 2008. The recitals to the PSA state that the parties "desire to settle forthwith any and all rights of property . . . as well as . . . any and all claims each may have against the other for any reasons whatsoever[.]" In addition to the customary boilerplate language found in such agreements, the PSA dealt specifically with the parties' assets, including their residence, household furnishings, automobiles, bank and retirement accounts, and investments. Subsection 4 of Article SIXTH, entitled "Retirement and Pension Accounts, " identified the respective parties' retirement accounts with approximate values and concluded as follows:
"(a) Both the Husband and the Wife shall be awarded the exclusive right, title and interest to any and all retirement accounts, IRAs, State Teachers Pension and the like standing in his or her name, free of all claims by the other."
The Final Judgment of Divorce entered on July 3, 2008 approved and incorporated by reference the PSA.
After their divorce, Mr. Strauss and Ms. Mallicoat did not maintain any relationship. Mr. Strauss passed away on February 10, 2013, survived by his three adult children—one of whom is Benjamin R. Strauss, who in his capacity as Executor of the Estate is the Plaintiff in this matter. Prior to the divorce, Mr. Strauss had named Ms. Mallicoat the beneficiary of his TIAA-CREF retirement annuity accounts (Retirement Accounts). After the divorce, Mr. Strauss never changed the beneficiary designation. Consequently, TIAA-CREF paid Ms. Mallicoat $334, 705.99 in survivor benefits from Mr. Strauss' Retirement Accounts. Plaintiff filed suit against Ms. Mallicoat claiming that express and specific waivers in the PSA bar her from having a valid claim to any proceeds from the Retirement Accounts. Ms. Mallicoat placed the proceeds in a separate account and agreed to "refrain from using or otherwise accessing the TIAA-CREF proceeds until a resolution of this case."
The parties now bring cross Motions for Summary Judgment.
Standard of Review