Life Insurance And More Than One Beneficiary – Life Insurance Claim Denial Attorney

Here is an unusual life insurance situation.  It is an opinion from 1992.  The opinion is from the Amarillo Court of Appeals and is styled, Ester Belle Medlin, Appellant v. Earnest G. Medlin, Floyd W. Medlin, Brenda E. Burford and Carolyn E. Medlin, Appellees.

The question to be determined in this matter is whether appellant Esther or appellees are entitled to one-half of insurance proceeds which had become payable due to the death of Jessie F. Medlin, Jr. (Jessie), the insured.  Appellant is the insured’s mother and appellees are the insured’s children by a previous marriage.  From a trial court judgment awarding those proceeds to appellees, appellant brings this appeal.  For reasons hereinafter expressed, we reverse the judgment of the trial court and render judgment awarding the proceeds in question to appellant.

The beneficiary clause of the insurance policy provides in pertinent part:

Any sum becoming due on account of the death of an insured employee shall be payable to the beneficiary or beneficiaries designated by the employee … provided that if any designated beneficiary predeceases the employee, the share which such beneficiary would have received if living shall, except as may be otherwise specifically provided by the employee, be payable equally to the remaining designated beneficiary or beneficiaries, if any, who survive the employee….

In his Request for Group Life and Accidental Death and Dismemberment Insurance, Jessie designated the beneficiaries in the following manner:

Co/ Josie Ann Medlin 50% Co/ Esther Belle Medlin 50%

Josie Medlin was Jessie’s wife.  Both Jessie and Josie were murdered by their daughter, Rebecca, and Rebecca’s boyfriend.  Rebecca and her boyfriend killed themselves later the night of the murder.  Both Jessie and Josie died at approximately the same time.  Both parties agree that under the Texas Probate Code, Jessie is deemed to have survived Josie for purposes of determining the rights under the insurance policy.  The parties are in dispute over who is entitled to the 50% proceeds designated for Josie.  There is no dispute concerning the 50% designated for appellant, Esther Belle Medlin.  In its judgment, the trial court found appellees were entitled to the proceeds in question.  In relevant findings of fact the court found that Jessie specifically provided that upon his death Josie was to receive only 50% of the proceeds, appellant was to receive only 50% of the proceeds, and Jessie did not provide for a contingent beneficiary with respect to the 50% specifically given to Josie.

Appellant contends the trial court erred in rendering judgment for appellees.  We construe her two points to be attacks upon both the legal and factual sufficiency of the evidence to support the finding that Jessie specifically provided that appellant was to receive only 50% of the insurance proceeds.

Citing the general rule from the Texas Supreme Court in the 1967 opinion, McFarland V. Franklin Life Insurance, that the designated beneficiary of a life insurance policy is entitled to the proceeds upon the death of the insured, appellant contends she is entitled to the proceeds in question. Appellees, however, contend that by his 50% designation to appellant, Jessie, pursuant to the beneficiary clause, specifically provided appellant was to receive only 50% of the proceeds and the trial court correctly decided they were entitled to the other 50% of the proceeds.

As we noted earlier, the beneficiary clause provides that the beneficiaries have right of survivorship “except as may be otherwise specifically provided.”  The obvious question for our decision is whether the trial court was correct in concluding that, by his 50% designation, Jessie “specifically provided” that appellant was entitled to no more than that percentage of the proceeds.  Within this context, “specifically” means “with exactness and precision: in a definite manner.”

In support of their contention that the trial court judgment was correct, appellees cite the general rule that insurance policies are governed by the same rules of interpretation applicable to other types of contract, i.e., the primary purpose of interpretation of a contract is to determine the intent of the parties based upon a consideration of all parts of the contract, and, when a contract is reasonably susceptible of more than one construction or interpretation, the meaning of the agreement and the intent of the parties is a question of fact for the trier of fact.

It is a corollary of the above rule that only if the court makes the determination that the contract cannot be given a definite and certain legal meaning, and is therefore ambiguous, does a question of fact arise to be determined by the trier of fact.  It is also well settled that in a non-jury case, such as this, if there are questions of fact, the trial court is the finder of fact and as such is the judge of the credibility of the witnesses and the weight to be given to their testimony.  Findings of fact, in such an instance, are entitled to the same weight and are to be reviewed in the same manner as a jury verdict.

Appellees do not contend that the policy beneficiary clause itself is ambiguous.  The thrust of their contention must be that the 50% notation, under the facts of this case, makes the designation under the clause ambiguous thus requiring the trial court to hear testimony to determine the intent of the deceased.  Thus, the trial court’s determination that the 50% notation was a limitation upon the amount to be paid to appellant in any event, was within the ambit of its role as a fact finder.  We disagree.

If the 50% had not been made, clearly appellant would have been entitled to the policy benefits under the survivorship clause.  It is equally clear that if both beneficiaries had survived the deceased, each would have been entitled to one-half the proceeds.  That being so, the simple addition of the 50% notation by each name was simply surplusage and did not affect the shares which would have been payable to the beneficiaries under the policy. It did not make the designation ambiguous nor was it the specific provision required under the policy to limit the surviving beneficiary’s right to the proceeds of the policy.

We hold the 50% designation was not a specific provision denying the survivorship right to which appellant was entitled under the policy.

Contact Information