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Snizaski v. Public School Employees' Retirement Board

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

May 28, 2013

KAREN E. SNIZASKI AND CHRISTINE M. VILSACK
v.
PUBLIC SCHOOL EMPLOYEES' RETIREMENT BOARD APPEAL OF: WILLETTE GALLMAN

ARGUED: April 12, 2011

Appeal from the Memorandum Opinion and Order of the Commonwealth Court entered May 29, 2009 at No. 1329 CD 2009, vacating the Order of the Public School Employee's Retirement Board entered June 24, 2008, at No. 2006-21.

CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, ORIE MELVIN, JJ.

OPINION

MR. JUSTICE McCAFFERY

The issue before this Court is as follows:

Whether the Commonwealth Court correctly interpreted 24 Pa.C.S. § 8507(e) to require in this case that a Public School Employees' Retirement System nomination of benefits form must have been completed entirely in the hand of the member/decedent in order to effectuate a valid change of beneficiary designation.

Snizaski v. Public School Employees' Retirement Board, 995 A.2d 334 (Pa. 2010) (per curiam).

We conclude that the Commonwealth Court erred, and hold that the Public School Employees' Retirement Board (the "Board") correctly determined that, under the pertinent findings of fact, Section 8507(e) of the Public School Employees' Retirement Code (the "Code")[1] allows for the distribution of the retirement benefits at issue to Appellant.[2] Accordingly, we vacate the Commonwealth Court's order and remand for consideration of any other issues raised by Appellees to the extent that they have been properly preserved.

On June 11, 2002, Sandra N. Lapcevic ("Decedent") retired at age 57 from her position as a public school teacher employed by the Penn Hills School District. On May 6, 2002, Decedent, who had never married and had no children, submitted an application for retirement (the "first nomination form") to the Public School Employees' Retirement System ("PSERS") in which she designated her mother, Helen Lapcevic, as the primary beneficiary of her pension death benefit and two friends, Karen Snizaski and Christine Vilsack, as contingent beneficiaries, who would each receive fifty percent of the death benefit if Helen Lapcevic pre-deceased Decedent.

Slightly more than one month after Decedent's retirement, on July 15, 2002, Helen Lapcevic died. On August 2, 2002, PSERS received a nomination of beneficiary form (the "second nomination form") naming Willette Galman, Appellant herein, as the primary beneficiary of Decedent's death benefit.[3] Portions of the second nomination form had been completed by Appellant, but not Decedent's signature, her social security number, or the date on the form. Hearing Officer's Opinion and Recommendation, dated 3/10/08, at 12, Finding of Fact No. 50, as adopted by the Board's Opinion and Order, dated 6/24/08, at 3. Although Appellant was listed as the sole primary beneficiary, the second nomination form provided that she receive only fifty percent of the funds. Snizaski and Vilsack remained as contingent beneficiaries, with each woman slated to receive twenty-five percent of the death benefit.

PSERS returned the second nomination form to Decedent on October 19, 2002, with a letter explaining that the document could not be processed because it did not distribute one hundred percent of the death benefit payable to each beneficiary class. The letter also stated that if the problem could be rectified without altering the existing information, Decedent could simply insert additional information on the same document; however, in the event that Decedent might seek to modify the existing percentages printed on the document, a blank nomination of beneficiary form was enclosed to serve as a replacement.

Appellant altered the second nomination form (at Decedent's direction, according to Appellant's testimony) by first applying a white-out solution to the areas where the death benefit percentages were printed. Hearing Officer's Opinion and Recommendation at 12-13, Findings of Fact Nos. 53-57, as adopted and modified by the Board's Opinion and Order at 3. Appellant then wrote in new percentages indicating that she was to receive one hundred percent of the death benefit as primary beneficiary, and Snizaski and Vilsack each would be entitled to fifty percent of the benefit in their capacity as contingent beneficiaries. Decedent did not re-sign or re-date the document, nor did she initial the changes made by Appellant. Hearing Officer's Opinion and Recommendation at 6, Finding of Fact No. 13, as adopted by the Board's Opinion and Order at 3. The modified second nomination form was then returned to PSERS, which received it on October 29, 2002. Id., Finding of Fact No. 11.

Following receipt of the altered form, PSERS notified Decedent by letter dated December 27, 2002, that the modified second nomination form had been "received and processed." Id., Finding of Fact No. 14. This same letter informed Decedent that if she desired to make any future change to her beneficiary nomination, she must obtain, complete, and forward to PSERS "for processing" a new nomination of beneficiary form. Id. at 7, Finding of Fact No. 14. Critically, Decedent made no further beneficiary changes after receiving PSERS's letter of December 27, 2002. Board's Opinion and Order at 5, Finding of Fact No. 58.

Decedent's mental and physical condition began to deteriorate in 2004, and she was hospitalized for various physical infirmities. On October 18, 2004, she was adjudicated a totally incapacitated person in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County. The trial court appointed Dianne Spivak, a social worker, to serve as Decedent's permanent plenary guardian. On December 13, 2004, PSERS received a new nomination of beneficiary form (the "third nomination form"), signed by Spivak, ...


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