We Just Filed Another Brief to the Supreme Court of the United States

The Women’s Law Project continues to lead advocacy efforts against discriminatory laws that enable the government to forcefully deny women their inheritance, even when explicitly designated as the beneficiary by a person who has died.

“These laws let the government completely ignore your decisions about your assets based on very outdated notions and stereotypes,” said Terry L. Fromson, managing attorney of the Women’s Law Project. “They also impact mostly women, compounding the economic harm women suffer as a result of a lifetime of economic discrimination.”

Yesterday, we filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief with the Supreme Court of the United States in the case Sveen v. Melin. You can read the brief here.

In November, we filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to grant a petition for review in Carolyn Lazer v. Mark G. Kroncke. The Lazar petition may be determined by the decision in Sveen.

At issue in both cases is the constitutionality of retroactively applying obscure state laws that automatically revoke a decedent’s designation of a former spouse as a beneficiary of assets such as an IRA or life insurance. The primary difference between the two cases is the type of contract at issue—the beneficiary designation in Lazar concerned an individual retirement account, whereas Sveen involves the beneficiary of a life insurance policy.

These “revocation-on-divorce” statutes have been adopted in more than half the states. Pennsylvania has adopted a version of both of them.

When applied retroactively, as they are in most states with these statutes, they revoke the designation of a decedent based on a law that did not even exist at the time of the divorce.

These laws blatantly disregard the explicit wishes of the person who has died.

Instead, the law assumes that the deceased didn’t want their assets to be left to the person they specifically chose as a beneficiary if that person is a former spouse. In reality, many people want to leave assets to a former spouse–especially if they are co-parenting—which is why they designate them as the beneficiary on paperwork.

The government should not have the power to intrude into the lives of private citizens by overriding their explicitly expressed choice regarding who inherits their assets upon their death.

This type of government intrusion into private affairs of American citizens is especially appalling because it is premised on an outdated stereotype that divorce must mean an acrimonious relationship when, in fact, modern families succeed in many types of arrangements.

Originally written to revoke only a wife’s beneficiary status, these statutes significantly and disparately disadvantage women.  As compared to men, women are paid less, spend more time out of the workforce performing uncompensated family caregiving, and have fewer assets.  After divorce and in retirement, women are more likely to be in a worse economic position. According to a 2011 study, 73 percent more women than men over 65 live in poverty. More than 20 percent of divorced women live in poverty, with some estimates as high as 37 percent.

Finally, the premise of retroactively applying these statues is illogical.

These statutes intervene based on an assumption that a person will be inattentive to updating their IRA and life insurance designees in the wake of divorce, but also assume that the same person would know about an obscure statute, retroactively applied.

The brief was prepared and filed by attorneys at Boies Schiller Flexner LLP and fourteen advocacy organizations signed-on as amici. The Women’s Law Project is joined on the brief by the American Association of University Women, Atlanta Women for Equality, A Better Balance, California Women’s Law Center, Feminist Majority Foundation, Gender Justice, Legal Momentum, Legal Voice, National Partnership for Women & Families, National Women’s Law Center, Pension Rights Center, Southwest Women’s Law Center, and Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement.

For more information or to discuss this case with a WLP attorney, contact Tara Murtha at tmurtha@womenslawproject.org or 215-928-5766.

The Women’s Law Project is a public interest law center in Pennsylvania devoted to advancing the rights of women and girls.

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About womenslawproject

The Women's Law Project creates a more just and equitable society by advancing the rights and status of all women throughout their lives. To this end, we engage in high-impact litigation, advocacy, and education.
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