Saskatchewan court finds that pension plan beneficiary designation could not be altered using will
A recent Saskatchewan court case demonstrates some of the complexities involved in making and changing beneficiary designations in pension plans, particularly when a member attempts to make a beneficiary change using a will or other format not provided for by the pension plan administrator.1
Mr. Gerbrandt was a former member of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool pension plan who died in 2018 before retiring under the pension plan. Mr. Gerbrandt lived in a common law relationship with Ms. Nickel for 15 years, and the couple had three children together. During this relationship, Mr. Gerbrandt designated Ms. Nickel as the beneficiary of his pension plan. However, the couple ended their relationship in 1998. Mr. Gerbrandt did not have a spouse at the time of his death in 2018.
Two days before he passed away, Mr. Gerbradt executed a handwritten will, providing that his daughter from a previous relationship would receive “any money owed to me from all pension plans.” Ms. Nickel and the daughter submitted competing claims for Mr. Gerbrandt’s pre-retirement death benefits. Ultimately, Ms. Nickel brought an application for directions from the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench as to the entitlement to pre-retirement death benefits.
Court finding and reasons
The court found that, since Mr. Gerbrandt did not use the prescribed form to make the change in “the manner specified in the plan,” the designation in his will was not an actual change to the beneficiary. Ms. Nickel remained the designated beneficiary and was entitled to the pre-retirement death benefit.
The pension plan text stated that, “A Member who has made a beneficiary designation may, by written notice to the Company in the form prescribed by the Company, alter or revoke such designation from time to time…” Mr. Gerbrandt did not provide written notice to the Company or use the form prescribed by the Company when he attempted to alter his designation naming Ms. Nickel. Instead, he attempted to do so in his handwritten will.
The court also reviewed section 67(2) of The Pension Benefits Act, 1992 (Saskatchewan) which requires that an alteration or revocation of benefits designated, “be made only in the manner specified in the plan.” The court stated that, if the legislature intended to permit employees in Saskatchewan to designate beneficiaries by will, then the legislation would have indicated this.
The finding in this court case is based on this specific pension plan’s wording, as well as, the wording in the provincial pension legislation. The result could have been different if the same facts had arisen in a different province, since legislation supporting beneficiary designations varies across provinces. The result could also have been different if the pension plan had not specified that beneficiary designations be revoked or altered in the form specified by the employer.
In light of the complexities of the law, pension plan members and former members should be strongly encouraged to use the specified form to make, alter and revoke beneficiary designations. Although they may be able to make or alter beneficiary designations using a will, there is a risk that the beneficiary designation or alternation in the will could be found invalid pursuant to the terms of the pension plan and the applicable legislation.
Where there are competing beneficiaries for a pre-retirement death benefit or there is uncertainty as to the validity of a beneficiary designation, it is important for pension plan administrators to consider legal advice and allow both potential beneficiaries to make their submissions. In some cases, a court decision may be required to settle such disputes.
1 Nickel v. Gerbrandt,  S.J. No. 176.