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It's musical chairs regarding decedent's life insurance policy

If you are not a lawyer, it is likely that you are unfamiliar with what the legal term preemption means, and it is certainly understandable if you don't.

If, conversely, you find yourself in a legal dispute in which that concept is at the core, you'll understand it soon enough.

That is certainly true of a Virginia widow, who has found herself front and center in a property division issue that is now before the United States Supreme Court, a development she surely couldn't have contemplated in her wildest dreams when she married her now-deceased husband.

Her spouse, a federal worker, divorced his first wife four years prior to remarrying. His federal life insurance policy named the former wife as beneficiary, something he neglected to change following his second marriage.

That has turned out to be a problem. When he died, his ex-spouse was entitled to collect under the policy's guidelines. The widow sued in a Virginia court, which ruled in her favor based on a state law presumption that a policy holder naturally prefers a current family member to collect the proceeds. If the holder doesn't want that to be the case, he or she can make a redesignation following a divorce.

Her spouse never did that, having seemingly forgotten to do so.

That brought a response from wife number one, who took the matter to the state's Supreme Court. That Court reversed, finding that federal law on federal insurance programs preempts state law.

And now the battle continues, with the case before the U.S. Supreme Court, which will rule on the preemption issue. The widow argues that state law applies in the realm of domestic relations.

The proceeds amounted to about $125,000.

Source: Washington Post, "Will the widow or the ex-wife get the money? Supreme Court to decide," Diana Reese, April 22, 2013

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