At MorningstarAdvisor, Natalie Choate answered the question below about same-sex marriage and retirement plans. She practices law in Boston, specializing in estate planning for retirement benefits. Her book, Life and Death Planning for Retirement Benefits, is a leading resource for professionals in this field.

Question: “John,” age 54, and “Jim,” age 58, were married to each other under Massachusetts law. Their marriage is not recognized under federal law. Jim died, leaving a 401(k) plan and a money purchase pension plan, both maintained by his employer, Acme Widget Co. Jim had named John as designated beneficiary of the pension plan, but Jim never filed any beneficiary designation form for the 401(k) plan. The 401(k) plan provides that, if no beneficiary is named, the benefits shall be paid to the employee’s “surviving spouse, if any, otherwise to the employee’s estate.”

Elsewhere, the plan provides that the interpretation and administration of the plan shall be governed by Massachusetts law “to the extent not pre-empted by ERISA.” I assume this means the 401(k) benefits must be paid to Jim’s estate, since under federal laws such as ERISA same-sex marriage is not recognized. John is the sole beneficiary of the estate, under Jim’s will, which has been admitted to probate in Massachusetts. What are John’s rights with respect to the pension plan? The 401(k) plan?

Click over to MorningstarAdvisor to read Natalie’s thorough answer.