Articles Posted in Life Insurance

What if the person who is the named beneficiary of a life insurance policy, intentionally caused the death of the insured?  Who gets the money?

Pursuant to the 1987, Texas Supreme Court opinion, Crawford v. Coleman, a beneficiary who willfully participates in bringing about the insured’s death, either as a principal or as an accomplice, forfeits any right to benefits.  The benefits are payable to any innocent contingent beneficiary or to the insured’s nearest relative.

Sandra Shoaf was stabbed to death by her husband, Cornelius Shoaf.  Sandra’s life was insured under four insurance policies, each designating Cornelius as the primary beneficiary.  The trial court disqualified Cornelius from receiving Sandra’s death benefits because the jury found that Cornelius willfully caused Sandra’s death.

Who is the named beneficiary primary beneficiary under the policy and will that person always be the person who receives the policy benefits is a question many life insurance attorneys are asked by prospective client.

This issue is discussed in a 1981 Eastland Court of Appeals opinion styled, Pilot Life Insurance Company v. Koch.  This is a declaratory judgement case.

Pilot sought a judgment declaring it had no duty to pay life insurance proceeds to Lawrence Koch because of the death of his wife.  Pilot has issued a group policy to Koch’s employer.  The policy afforded life insurance coverage for employees and their eligible dependents.  Eligible dependents were defined to include “your husband or wife, unless you were legally separated or divorced.”  Pilot alleged that Mr. and Mrs. Koch were legally separated on the date of her death.  Koch filed a counterclaim seeking the policy proceeds.  The jury found that Mr. and Mrs. Koch were separated at the time of her death.  Although that separation was pursuant to a “temporary” court order entered in the pending divorce proceedings between the Koch’s, the trial court entered judgment for Koch notwithstanding the verdict on the theory that under Texas law there is no status of legal separation of a husband and wife before the marriage is dissolved by a decree of divorce.

Are spouses always entitled to life insurance benefits when the other spouse dies?  Life insurance lawyers need to be able to discuss this with prospective clients.

One spouse can designate his or her estate as the beneficiary of the policy, at the expense of the other spouse, absent any showing of actual or constructive fraud.  This was discussed and made clear in the 1994 Fort Worth Court of Appeals opinion styled, Street v. Skipper.

Policies may contain provisions automatically divesting a spouse of any interest in the proceeds, if the parties are “legally separated” or divorced.  This was discussed in the 1981 Eastland Court of Appeals decision styled, Pilot Life Insurance Co. v. Koch.  Also, the divorce decree may divest the former spouse of any right to the insurance proceeds.  This was discussed in the 1987 14th District Court of Appeals in an opinion styled, Novotny v. Wittner.  By statute, a divorce invalidates any pre-divorce designation of the former spouse as beneficiary, unless the former spouse is redesignated.  If the pre-divorce designation is invalidated, the proceeds go to any alternate beneficiary or to the insured’s estate.  If the insurer pays the former spouse based on an invalidated designation, the insurer is liable to pay the proper beneficiary.  This is found in the Texas Family Code, Section 9.301.

For attorneys handling life insurance claim, a 1998, opinion from the Corpus Christi Court of Appeals is a good read.  The opinion is styled, Camp v. Camp.

In this opinion, Rebecca Camp  (“Rebecca”) appeals a summary judgment denying her the proceeds of her deceased husband’s term life insurance policy.  Rebecca alleges the trial court erred in applying the “inception of title” rule to award the life insurance proceeds to the beneficiary named in her husband’s policy, which was purchased before his marriage to Rebecca.

John Camp (“John”) received the life insurance policy at issue as an employment benefit while he was still single and without children.  He named his mother, Mary E. Camp (“Mary”), beneficiary of the policy.  He did not change the insurance policy’s beneficiary designation to wife Rebecca after they were married.  Premiums from the policy were paid from John’s employment earnings during the years of his marriage to Rebecca until his death. Rebecca sued for a declaratory judgment against Mary as to the ownership of the policy.  She claimed John’s failure to name her as a beneficiary under the policy constituted a constructive fraud on the community estate.

Life Insurance cases run a wide gamut of issues.  Here is a 1997, Austin Court of Appeals decision that deals with the denial of life insurance benefits due to an aviation exclusion.  The style of the case is, Board of Trustees of the Employees Retirement System of Texas v. Linda Benge.

Linda is the beneficiary under the life insurance policy at issue in this case.  The policy is an Accidental Death policy and contained an exclusion for air travel or flight.  The insured, Mr. Hury, flew his plan in an air show and upon landing his plane, went into a “ground loop” before stopping on an adjoining runway.  Another plane, while landing, collided with the plane of the insured killing the insured.

The beneficiary of the insured made the claim for benefits which was denied due to the exclusion.  A Judge ruled in favor of Linda and this appealed followed.  This Court ruled in favor of the insurer.

Life insurance claim denials are more common than most people realize.  The majority of denials have to do with the allegation by the life insurance company that the insured misrepresented their health in the life insurance application.  The second most common reason has to do with exclusions in the policy.

Here is a 1998, opinion from the Austin Court of Appeals that deals with an exclusion.  The opinion is styled, Butler v. Group Life and Health Insurance Company.

During a social occasion, the decedent and a number of friends picked up an unloaded gun and began to point the gun into their mouths and pull the trigger.  At some point, ammunition was placed in the gun.  Decedent did not know this.  After the gun was loaded, but while the decedent still believed it was not loaded, decedent picked up the gun, pointed it to his mouth, pulled the trigger and killed himself.  Decedent’s beneficiary made a claim for life insurance benefits, accidental death benefits and attorney fees and interest as provided by the Texas Insurance Code.  The policy in question was issued by Group Life under the terms of the Texas Employees Uniform Group Insurance Act.  The Board administering the policy denied the claim because the decedent died as a result of intentionally self-inflicted injuries and because his death was not accidental.  The district court affirmed and Butler appealed.

Attorneys who handle claim denials in accidental death cases need to know the opinions handed down by the courts on these types of claim.  Here is a 1997, opinion from the Dallas Court of Appeals.  The opinion is styled, Grant v. Group Life & Health Insurance Company.

Grant used a pry bar to break into the residence of Stokes.  When grant entered the residence, Stokes shot him five times, killing him.  Grant’s wife sued Group Life to recover benefits under an accident policy for the death of her husband.  Group Life moved for summary judgement on the basis that Grant died while committing a burglary and, therefore, his death was not accidental.  The trial court granted the summary judgment and Grant appealed.

The Court held that because Grant’s death was not accidental, the trial court correctly granted Group Life’s Motion for Summary Judgement.  Grant argues that because Group Life did not furnish her with a certificate of insurance, it is estopped from relying on undisclosed exclusions.  Because the policy in question does not provide coverage for Grant’s death the policy’s exclusions are irrelevant.

Life Insurance lawyers will run into situations where a life insurance company knows they owe the life insurance proceeds but they are unsure who is entitled to the money.  There are many ways this can arise such as a beneficiary isn’t named or the person named as a beneficiary has died, or many other ways.  The bottom line is, what is the insurance company supposed to do when they are unsure who is entitled to the life insurance monies.
This issue was addressed by the Texas Supreme Court in a 1967 opinion styled, McFarland v. Franklin Life Insurance Company.
In 1950 respondent issued a policy of insurance on the life of John V. McFarland, who was about nine years of age at the time. The policy was taken out by his parents, Bernard and Gwendolyn McFarland, the latter of whom is petitioner here. Bernard was named in the policy as primary beneficiary, and petitioner was designated as contingent beneficiary. John married in 1962 and died the following year. His father predeceased him; he was survived by his widow and petitioner. Petitioner brought this suit against respondent to recover the amount due on the policy plus the statutory penalty and attorney’s fees. Respondent interpleaded Mrs. John V. McFarland, admitted liability for the proceeds of the policy, and paid the funds into court. The trial court, sitting without a jury, awarded petitioner the money so deposited but allowed no penalty or attorney’s fee, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.  The only question is whether petitioner is entitled to recover such penalty, attorney’s fee and court costs.

Here is an interesting life insurance case that takes us down a different path as it relates to what happened.  This is a Memorandum Order issued by a Magistrate Judge in the Northern District of Texas, Dallas Division.  The case is styled, Delaware Life Insurance Company of New York v. Retirement Value, LLC.

This Order results from a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure, 56, summary judgment motion in the context of a declaratory judgment action.

Here, Retirement Value moves for summary judgment on its counterclaim for declaratory relief.  That is, Retirement Value seeks a judgment declaring each of the following facts necessary to require Delaware Life Insurance Company of New York (Delaware Life) to pay Retirement Value the stated death benefits on two policies issued by Sun Life Insurance and Annuity Company of New York insuring the life of Lilly Segal (the Segal Policies”):

Here’s is another situation that a Life Insurance Claim Attorney will learn quickly.  It deals with life insurance beneficiaries and divorces.

This is a 1987 opinion from the 14th Court of Appeals.  It is styled, Novotny v. Wittner.  It stands for the proposition that a pre-divorce designation of a former spouse is invalidated upon divorce unless the spouse is re-designated after the divorce.  This opinion is now codified in Texas Family Code, Section 9.301.

This is an appeal from the award of insurance proceeds to the successor guardian of the decedent’s children.  The dispute over the ownership of the proceeds of the life insurance policy is between the decedent’s former wife, who was the named beneficiary on the policy, the administrator of the decedent’s estate, and the successor guardian of the decedent’s two children.  The decedent and Appellant were divorced twenty-one days before the decedent’s death.  Although the divorce decree awarded all insurance on decedent’s life to him as his sole and separate property, and divested Appellant of all interest in the policies, he had not yet changed the beneficiary designation on one policy.  The trial court found that the divorce decree terminated Appellant’s beneficial interest in the policy and awarded the proceeds to the decedent’s children.  The Court agreed.

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