PSERS Benefits Based on Beneficiary Forms In Pennsylvania

In Coleman Appeal, 33 Pa. D&C 2nd 191 (1963), the Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County, which was acting in the same capacity assumed by the yet-to-be-created Commonwealth Court, held that a nomination of beneficiaries form received by the Board after the death of a Pennsylvania School Employees' Retirement System (PSERS) member may only be effective if that member made all possible efforts to file the nomination with the Board prior to death. In that case, a petitioner contested PSERS' benefits based on two competing beneficiary forms, one of which was filed with PSERS in 1945 and was signed by two witnesses, while the other was completed in 1957, was not signed by any witnesses, and, more importantly, was never filed with PSERS. Relying on the fact that, normally, in life insurance contracts, the general rule is that the mode prescribed by an insurance policy for a change of beneficiary must be strictly and exactly followed, and the only exception to that rule is in situations where it can be showed that an insured did everything in his power to make the change and had done everything under the circumstances reasonably possible to comply with the policy terms, the Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County upheld the 1945 form because the Code required that the nomination of beneficiaries form be filed with PSERS, the 1957 form was never filed, and the record disclosed that the decedent knew of the required filing, had time to change beneficiaries, and had no physical barriers impeding her from filing the form. The Coleman Court, thus, concluded that the failure to file the form was purposeful. Under the Coleman test, the question then is whether Decedent made all possible efforts to designate the new beneficiary prior to her death by executing the Assignment and then entrusting her attorney to obtain the necessary documents to effectuate that change with PSERS.