Egelhoff, Erisa Preemption, and the Conundrum of the 'Relate to' Clause

Posted: 6 Jun 2001

See all articles by Edward A. Zelinsky

Edward A. Zelinsky

Yeshiva University - Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law


In this article, Professor Zelinsky discusses the recent decision of the United States Supreme Court in Egelhoff v. Egelhoff. In Egelhoff, the Court held that section 514(a) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) preempts a Washington state statute under which, as to nonprobate assets, divorce revokes any pre-divorce beneficiary designation of the former spouse. Egelhoff, Professor Zelinsky contends, indicates that the Court, in the midst of revising its earlier understanding of section 514(a) and of ERISA's preemptive effect, has yet to settle on a construction of section 514(a) and its expansive terminology.

Professor Zelinsky suggests that in the wake of Egelhoff, the best reading of section 514(a) and its "relate to" test is to treat them as a statutory presumption for preemption in the ERISA context. The alternative - construing section 514(a) as incorporating the Court's normal standards of preemption - has serious logical and textual limitations.

In contrast, treating the "relate to" clause as a presumption for preemption provides a convincing rationale for the result in Egelhoff and comports well with the terminology of the statute. Moreover, such an approach supplies solid footing for the more restrained outlook on ERISA preemption the Supreme Court has embraced since its decision in New York State Conference of Blue Cross & Blue Shield Plans v. Travelers Insurance Co.

Suggested Citation

Zelinsky, Edward A., Egelhoff, Erisa Preemption, and the Conundrum of the 'Relate to' Clause. Available at SSRN:

Edward A. Zelinsky (Contact Author)

Yeshiva University - Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law ( email )

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