A Divorce Court Can Make You Execute Documents

We don't ordinarily think of courts becoming involved in the minutiae of effectuating their rulings. But sometimes they must. In Suarez v. Castillo, a trial court did not abuse its discretion when it ordered an ex-wife to execute a document transferring and releasing retirement benefits.

The retirement benefits were earned by the ex-husband. He was retired from working for the State of Texas. When he retired, he selected an annuity option from the Employee Retirement System of Texas (ERS). The ex-wife was the primary beneficiary of the ex-husband's ERS retirement. The ex-husband's estate was the secondary beneficiary.

The spouses divorced a few years after the ex-husband retired. The trial court awarded the ex-husband the ERS retirement benefits. The ex-husband wrote ERS to request that his sister be made the beneficiary of his ERS account. But the ex-husband died before completing the necessary paperwork.

The ex-husband's sister became the executrix of her brother's estate. In that role, the sister demanded that the ex-wife execute a transfer and release form so that the ex-husband's ERS benefits would be paid to his estate. When the ex-wife refused, the sister sued the ex-wife to require her signature.

The ex-wife argued that the trial court could not order her to sign the transfer and release form because that would result in altering the ERS statutory scheme. But unlike the Teacher Retirement System, ERS does not prohibit a change in beneficiary after a member's death. Further, under the divorce decree, the ex-wife had been divested of any interest in the annuity. Accordingly, the Eastland Court of Appeals held that the trial court had not abused its discretion by ordering the ex-wife to sign the transfer and release form, on pain of contempt of court should she refuse.