Yes, a court could order this. You have stumbled upon one of the most hotly contested and litigated issues in courts, these days. Each circuit handles these cases differently. Many impose a constructive trust on the former spouse. Under Federal law, you are entitled to payment as the beneficiary. State law may provide that you are not allowed to keep it, however. You need to consult with a probate attorney right away to determine how MO law treats this.
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I agree with Attorney Frederick.
Many states have a law where the divorced spouse is considered to have predeceased the IRA owner. You actually have a divorce decree that says you have separated your assets. Still your ex spouse should have changed the beneficiary designation to someone other than you. Ex spouses failed to do that so often many states passed the statute that I mentioned.
Recent court decisions are suggesting that there is unjust enrichment claim where someone like you gets the funds despite the divorce decree clearly stating the parties agreed to a financial parting of the ways. It s not clear though and it is not a slam dunk argument.
Based on the facts that you have described, I do not think there is any reason to think that you were expected to get the death benefit under the IRA. If there is any reason to think your ex spouse really wanted that, then you could have an argument that you are entitled to it.
One thing that I am little curious about is what jurisdiction does the MO court have over you since you apparently are living in San Diego. I am thinking that would have to pursue you in California. I am not sure what the jurisdiction issues are. I do not deal with jurisdiction issues often that cross state lines.
You do not live in Mo. The decedent did though and the IRA was her asset. Maybe they have jurisdiction over who the proper beneficiary is over the IRA asset. They would probably have to get a court order and then pursue you in CA to get reimbursed on it. though. I am curious though, is there any reason to think that you should have been the beneficiary? Did she fail to change it because of inadvertence or she was conflicted and maybe you were the intended beneficiary.
You could go to court in MO now and argue the funds are yours. If you do not, and lose the argument because you never showed up, they will have to transfer the order to CA and then you can argue the jurisdiction issue. However, if you lose it, then I do not believe you can re-argue the substantive issue. You may want to argue that now in MO. In my state, the ex-spouse beneficiary who inherits under an IRA has good arguments.
If the assets are in the hands of the administator for her estate then you need to retain counsel right away to contest their designation of the funds as an estate asset.
Legal disclaimer: This answer does not constitute legal advice. I am admitted to practice law in the State of Missouri only, and make no attempt to opine on matters of law that are not relevant to Missouri. This answer is based on general principles of law that may or may not relate to your specific situation, and is for promotional purposes only. You should never rely on this answer alone and nothing in these communications creates an attorney-client relationship. less