Boggs v. Boggs

LOCATION: Arkansas State Capitol

DOCKET NO.: 96-79
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 520 US 833 (1997)
ARGUED: Jan 15, 1997
DECIDED: Jun 02, 1997

Edward J. Deano, Jr. - Argued the cause for the respondent
Marian M. Livaudais - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Paul R. Q. Wolfson - Department of Justice, on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioner

Facts of the case

Isaac Boggs married Sandra Boggs, the petitioner, after the death of Dorothy, his previous wife. When Isaac retired in 1985, he received various benefits from his employer's retirement plans, including a lump sum savings plan distribution, shares of stock from the company's employee stock ownership plan, and a monthly annuity payment. In 1989, following Issac's death a dispute over ownership of the benefits arose between Sandra and Issac's sons, Thomas F., Harry M., and David B. Boggs. The sons' claim is based on Dorothy's purported testamentary transfer to them, under Louisiana law, of a portion of her community property interest in Isaac's undistributed pension plan benefits. Sandra contested the validity of that transfer, arguing that the sons' claim is pre-empted by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. The Federal District Court disagreed and granted summary judgment against Sandra. The Court of Appeals affirmed.


Does the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 pre-empt state community-property law allowing a non-participant spouse to transfer by a testamentary instrument an interest in undistributed pension plan benefits?

Media for Boggs v. Boggs

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 15, 1997 in Boggs v. Boggs

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 02, 1997 in Boggs v. Boggs

The second decision I have to announce is No. 96-79, Boggs versus Boggs.

This is still another case involving the preemptive effect, or not the preemptive effect, that's the issue in the case, of the Employment Retirement Income and Security Act, commonly known as ERISA.

Now, these questions are recurrent and two other cases on the subject of ERISA preemption have come before the Court in the current term alone.

But the number of these ERISA preemption cases reflects the comprehensive nature of the statute and the sensuality of pension and welfare plans in the national economy.

This case lies at the intersection of ERISA pension law, on the one hand, and state community property law on the other.

The question in essence is whether ERISA's statutory provisions, respecting ownership and payment of benefits can preempt state community property laws which are to the contrary.

I think Boggs was the employee in the case, and he was employed by South Central Bell.

At the time he began working for the company in 1949, Isaac was married to his first wife, Dorothy, and they had three children.

They remain married until her death in 1979.

So, that's a 30-year marriage with obvious community property because this is the State of Louisiana.

Within the year, Isaac remarried.

His second wife was Sandra Boggs.

The question here is whether the children by the first marriage can, through the operation of Louisiana's community property law, claim what they say as their mother's share of the community, as of the time of her death in 1979.

And they seek to recover what they claimed to be their mother's interest in annuity payments, stock distributions and lump sum payments that were made under the company's pension plans.

These plans of course are controlled by ERISA.

Isaac's second wife who survived in claims that the federal law, ERISA, determines the benefits and forecloses the community property claim.

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled against her holding the community property laws of Louisiana take precedence over ERISA.

In another case, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled the other way, holding that ERISA prevails over state community property law.

And we took the case to resolve the conflict.

We now reverse the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

The case is a significant one because there are nine community property states with some 80 million residents, and perhaps $1 trillion in retirement plans.

We hold that ERISA does preempt community property law in the event of conflicts over distribution and benefits.

The opinion cites the statutory language in the dominant ERISA policy which is designed to protect plan participants and surviving beneficiaries.

Justice Breyer has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice O'Connor has joined.

With respect to the different claims, the Chief Justice and Justice Ginsburg have joined portions of the majority opinion and portions of the dissenting opinion.