Attorney General's Opinion
Attorney General, Richard Blumenthal
August 19, 2002
William F. Sudol, Administrator
State Teachers' Retirement Board
21 Grand Street
Hartford, CT 06106-1500
Dear Mr. Sudol:
You have requested an opinion of this office as to whether a surviving spouse of a Teachers’ Retirement System member can receive the survivor’s benefits provided by Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-183h(d) when the member’s sole designated beneficiary is a trust to which she was the sole beneficiary until her death. For the reasons discussed below, we conclude that a surviving spouse who was not named as a retirement beneficiary by the member cannot receive these survivor's benefits. He may, however, be eligible for benefits under other provisions of Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-183h.
The facts presented in your request disclose that a member of the State Teachers’ Retirement System, Dorothy Roberts, designated "the Dorothy C. Roberts 1999 Revocable Trust dated October 22, 1999" as her sole beneficiary for the receipt of survivor's benefits under the Teachers Retirement Act, Conn. Gen. Stat. §§10-183b to 10-183pp. She designated herself as the beneficiary of the trust she established, with the trust income to be distributed to her husband upon her death. On February 18, 2000, approximately three months after this beneficiary designation was filed, Mrs. Roberts died. Mrs. Roberts had not retired prior to her death.1
The surviving spouse, Martin P. Roberts, Sr., has requested that he be permitted to receive the enhanced benefits provided by Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-183h(d) which permits surviving spouses who have been designated as beneficiaries under the Teachers’ Retirement Act to receive a one hundred percent monthly benefit under certain circumstances. Mr. Roberts argues that although he was not named as the beneficiary of Mrs. Roberts' retirement benefits, the terms of the trust, in effect, now render him the sole beneficiary of Mrs. Roberts' retirement benefits. He relies on the trust instrument’s grant of authority to Mr. Roberts, after Mrs. Roberts' death, to withdraw assets from the trust, to the point of completely exhausting them. Mr. Roberts also asserts that all children of the marriage, as well as the trustees of the trust, are willing to waive any claim to survivor’s benefits.
The Teachers’ Retirement System is a public pension plan, created by statute. Conn. Gen. Stat. §§ 10-183b to 10-183pp. As such, benefits under this plan can be awarded only in strict compliance with statutory plan provisions. See Fennell v. City of Hartford, 238 Conn. 809, 815-820 (1996); Pinneman v. Oechslin, 195 Conn. 405, 416 (1985).
Section 10-183h(d) of the Connecticut General Statutes reads, in full, as follows:
You have indicated that Mrs. Roberts met the requirements of subsection (d)(2) at the time of her death. Therefore, the only subsection of 10-183h(d) at issue is subsection (1).
Based on the information you provided, Mrs. Roberts failed to designate Mr. Roberts as her beneficiary in the manner prescribed by subsection (1) of Section 10-183h(d). Therefore, the enhanced survivor’s benefits provided by that section cannot be awarded to Mr. Roberts.
When analyzing statutes we look first to the statutory language to determine legislative intent. Macdermid, Inc. v. Department of Environmental Protection, 257 Conn. 128, 154 (2001); Martinez v. Department of Public Safety, 258 Conn. 680, 685 (2001); Hyllen-Davey v. Planning and Zoning Commission of Glastonbury, 57 Conn. App. 589, 595 (2000). The language of Section 10-183h(d) indicates that the General Assembly intended to strictly circumscribe the enhanced benefits at issue. "An election [of the survivor’s benefits provided] under this subsection may be made only in cases where" the member has designated beneficiaries in the manner specified. Conn. Gen. Stat. §10-183h(d).
The legislature established only two specific ways for a member to create entitlement to subsection (d) benefits. The first of these is by naming the surviving spouse as the member’s sole designated beneficiary of her retirement benefits. The second is by naming the surviving spouse as one of the member’s designated beneficiaries. In this latter circumstance, all other designated beneficiaries are required to relinquish their claims to survivor’s benefits before the surviving spouse is eligible for the §10-183h(d) election.
Neither prong of the Section 10-183h(d)(1) requirements for receipt of survivor’s benefits has been met here. Mrs. Roberts did not name her surviving spouse as a designated beneficiary, either singly or in combination with others. Therefore, award of Section 10-183h(d) benefits is statutorily precluded.
You have informed us that Mr. Roberts has made two principal claims regarding his entitlement to Section 10-183h(d) benefits. The first of these is that designation of a trust in which he has a beneficial interest makes him a designated beneficiary. Contrary to Mr. Roberts' first claim, however, his beneficial interest in the Dorothy C. Roberts' Trust does not make him a "designated beneficiary" under § 10-183h(d).
The term "surviving spouse," as used in the Teachers’ Retirement Act, is defined in Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-183b(23) as follows:
A trust is not a surviving spouse pursuant to this definition. A surviving spouse is clearly a natural person. A trust, on the other hand, is a legal construct. A trust is "a property interest held by one person (the trustee) at the request of another (the settlor) for the benefit of a third party (the beneficiary)." Black’s Law Dictionary 1513 (7th Ed. 1999). Since a trust is not a surviving spouse, Mrs. Roberts' trust was not entitled to collect Subsection (d) survivor’s benefits and those benefits did not become part of the trust. Therefore, since the survivor's benefits did not become part of the trust, Mr. Roberts did not obtain a beneficial interest in those benefits upon Mrs. Roberts' death. His beneficial interest in the trust, therefore, does not transform Mr. Roberts into a designated beneficiary of Mrs. Roberts' retirement benefits as required by section 10-183h(d).
Mr. Roberts also argues that the waiver of all claims to retirement benefits by the trustee and other beneficiaries of the trust entitles him to the claimed survivor’s benefits. However, Section 10-183h(d)(1) permits waiver in favor of the surviving spouse only if the surviving spouse is one of the named beneficiaries. As noted, Mrs. Roberts did not designate Mr. Roberts as a retirement beneficiary and the trust had no right to the section 10-183h(d) benefits which apply solely to surviving spouses. Consequently, neither the trust, nor other beneficiaries of the trust, had any rights to waive in favor of Mr. Roberts.
This conclusion does not leave Mr. Roberts without any benefits.2 It simply means that he cannot qualify for the enhanced benefits contained in §10-183h(d).
We trust that this answers your questions.
Very truly yours,
Assistant Attorney General
1This beneficiary designation was solely to determine the distribution of survivor's benefits if the member died before retirement. The distribution of benefits to survivors after a member retires is governed by the beneficiary designation that a member files in her formal application for retirement. We express no opinion concerning the effect of a designation of a trust as beneficiary for this purpose.
2You have informed us that, Mr. Roberts as the surviving spouse could receive the survivor's benefits provided by other subsections of Conn. Gen. Stat. §10-183h, in particular, subsections (a) and (b).