After Deputy’s Death, Court Reverses His Attempt To Change Beneficiaries During Divorce

David Briese was a member of the Montana Sheriffs Retirement System as a result of his employment as a deputy sheriff for Yellowstone County. The System is governed by the Montana Public Employees Retirement Board. In 2001, David designated his wife Erene Briese as his primary beneficiary under the System’s plan.

In 2004, David filed a petition for dissolution of marriage. The divorce court issued a standard temporary restraining order that restrained both parties from disposing of property, except in the usual course of business or for the necessities of life, without either the consent of the other party or an order of the Court, or from changing the beneficiaries of “insurance or other coverage…held for the benefit of a party.” In August 2006, while the marital dissolution proceedings were still pending, and without consent of Erene or the court, David filed a new designation with the System, dropping Erene as beneficiary and naming instead their two minor children.

David Briese was killed in the line of duty a few months later, in November 2006. At the time of his death, David and Erene were separated but not divorced.

Erene apparently learned of the 2006 change in beneficiary in early 2008. Erene argued that the 2006 change of beneficiaries was void because it was done in violation of the temporary restraining order. When the Board rejected her arguments, Erene appealed to the Montana Supreme Court.

The Court sided with Erene, and ruled that David’s attempt to change beneficiaries was ineffective. The question faced by the Court was whether the restraining order prohibiting “changing the beneficiaries of any insurance or other coverage” applied to a change of beneficiary under the System. The Court found that it did.

The Court observed that “the purpose of the law requiring a temporary restraining order is clearly to maintain the status quo with respect to all property of the parties. The statute is expansively worded to capture any property, real or personal, along with any inchoate right to property as the beneficiary of any insurance or other coverage. This action mitigates the potential harm to spouses and children caused by the dissolution process itself and ensures that reasonable provision is made for the spouse and children during the litigation. The plain language of the statute underlying the restraining order is quite broad, restricting both parties from unilaterally changing the beneficiaries of any coverage held for the benefit of a party. On its face, therefore, the statute appears to restrict the removal of a spouse as a beneficiary under any type of benefit coverage, including as a beneficiary of a System retirement account, so long as a dissolution action is pending.

“The statute, moreover, is not confined to ‘insurance’ but also includes ‘any…other coverage.’ We construe a statute to give effect to all of its provisions. The language of Montana’s standard restraining order clearly enjoins any change of beneficiaries for ‘any…coverage…held for the benefit of a party.’ The broad language restraining a change of beneficiaries eliminates any need to specifically list all of the types of accounts to which it applies. The use of the term ‘including life, health, automobile, and disability coverage’ indicates that this listing of types of coverage is not exclusive. The restraining order in this case applied to David’s change of beneficiary.”

Briese v. Montana Public Employees’ Retirement Bd., 285 P.3d 550 (Mt. 2012).