The passing of a loved one is always a difficult time. Unfortunately some people will take advantage of these situations for financial gain. A Palm Bay family was shocked to discover that their loved one signed away her life insurance benefits to her landlord just days before her death. Further the policy had been changed by the landlord’s attorney and submitted after the loved one had passed away.
Arcadier, Biggie, & Wood, PPLC represented the family through this difficult time. A case was brought in Federal Court where ultimately the Judge sided with the family.
The opinion is copied below.
ORDER Case No: 6:16-cv-538-Orl-40TBS
This is an interpleader action brought by Lincoln Benefit Life Company in order to determine the rightful owner to the proceeds of a life insurance policy insuring the life of the “Decedent.” Before the Court at this time is Cross Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment, filed June 1, 2017. (Doc. 89). Cross Defendant responded in opposition on June 14, 2017, (Doc. 91). Upon consideration and review of the record, including all pleadings, deposition transcripts, affidavits, exhibits, and memoranda of the respective parties, the Court grants in part and denies in part Cross
Claimants’ Motion for Summary Judgment.
This case involves a dispute over the proper beneficiary of life insurance proceeds. On September 2, 2005, Lincoln Benefit Life Company (“Lincoln Benefit”) issued Term Life Insurance Policy No. 01T1598741 on the Decedent’s life in the amount of $100,000.00 (the “Policy”). (Doc. 1, ¶ 7). On her application, the Decedent designated her niece, Cross Plaintiff Adrienne as the primary beneficiary, and Adrienne’s daughter, Cross Plaintiff Nelda 1, as the contingent beneficiary under the Policy. (Id. ¶ 8). The Decedent died on December 5, 2015, thereby obligating Lincoln
to pay the sums due under the Policy. (Doc. 1-2).
On December 8, 2015, Nelda contacted Lincoln Benefit reporting alleged fraudulent changes made to the Policy before the Decedent passed away. (Doc. 1, ¶ 11).
On December 16, 2015, Lincoln received a change of beneficiary form dated November 24, 2015. (Doc. 1-3). The change of beneficiary form designated Cross Defendant Carole
as 25% beneficiary, Nelda as 50% beneficiary, and Defendant Atilia as 25 % beneficiary. (Id.).
The family claims that the change of beneficiary form was never effectuated under the terms of the Policy is, therefore, ineffective. Specifically, the family claims that the Decedent never filed the change of beneficiary form with Lincoln Benefit, nor did she direct anyone to file a change of beneficiary form on her behalf. Instead, the family contends that the form was filled out and submitted by Kertech Conze (“Conze”), the attorney who represents Carole in this action.
Accordingly, the family filed cross claims against Carole, claiming tortious interference with an expectancy or inheritance (Count I); fraud (Count II); tortious interference with a third party beneficiary to a contract (Count III); and injunctive relief2, wherein the family asks the Court to declare that the sole beneficiary of the Policy is Adrienne (Count IV).
The undisputed facts regarding the execution of the change of beneficiary form are as follows:3
1. Carole, who was acting as the Decedent’s landlord, testified that while the Decedent was in the hospital in November 2015, the Decedent wanted to add Carole as a beneficiary on the Policy. (Doc. 92, ¶ 22).
2. Carole told her husband to find an attorney. (Id. ¶ 23).
3. Carole testified that the she hired Conze to represent her interests as they relate to the Policy. (Id. ¶ 25).
4. Conze hand wrote the information on the Decedent’s change of beneficiary form. (Id. ¶ 27).
5. Conze dated the change of beneficiary form prior to the Decedent signing the form. (Id. ¶ 29).
6. Conze pre-wrote the date, “11/24/15,” on the change of beneficiary form because that was the date he was told the Decedent was supposed to sign the form. (Id. ¶ 28).
7. Conze does not know if the Decedent signed the form on November 24, 2015, because he was not present for the signing. (Id. ¶ 30).
8. “At no time did [the Decedent] give instructions to Mr. Conze on who was to be beneficiary to her policy. Instead Mr. Conze wrote the beneficiary information that was given to him by [Carole’s husband].” (Id. ¶ 31).
9. Neither Carole, her husband, nor Conze were present when the change of beneficiary form was signed. (Id. ¶ 34).
10. Both Carole and Conze claim that a staff member of the hospital, Dorren Smith, was present for the signing of the change of beneficiary form. (Id. ¶ 35).
11. The Decedent was discharged from the hospital on November 25, 2015, to hospice care. (Id. ¶ 38).
12. The Decedent passed away on December 5, 2015, ten days after being dismissed from the hospital. (Id. ¶ 39).
13. On December 16, 2015, Lincoln Benefit received the change of beneficiary form, purportedly containing the signature of the Decedent. (Id. ¶ 42).
14. Lincoln Benefit did not receive the form from the Decedent; rather, the form was faxed after the Decedent’s death by Conze. (Id. ¶ 43).
15. Conze testified that the form was faxed after the Decedent’s death because that was when he received the form back from Carole’s husband. (Id. ¶ 44).
16. Conze did not receive instructions from the Decedent to send in the change of beneficiary form. (Id. ¶ 45).
17. Conze claims that he never met or spoke with the Decedent and was not present when the Decedent purportedly executed the change of beneficiary
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
Because the Court’s jurisdiction over this matter is premised upon diversity under 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a), the Court applies the substantive law of Florida, the forum state. See Erie R.R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64 (1938). Under Florida law, the interpretation of provisions of an insurance policy is a question of law properly decided on summary judgment. See James River Ins. Co. v. Ground Down Eng’g, Inc., 540 F.3d 1270, 1274 (11th Cir.2008); Dahl–Eimers v. Mutual of Omaha Life Ins. Co., 986 F.2d 1379, 1381 (11th Cir.1993).
Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), a court shall grant summary judgment “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” The party seeking summary judgment “always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (quotation omitted). If the movant shows that there is no evidence to support the non-moving party’s case, the burden then shifts to the nonmoving party to demonstrate that there are, in fact, genuine factual disputes which preclude judgment as a matter of law. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325; Porter v. Ray, 461 F.3d 1315, 1320 (11th Cir. 2006).
To satisfy its burden, the non-moving party “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). Rather, the non-movant must go beyond the pleadings and “identify affirmative evidence” which creates a genuine dispute of material fact. Crawford-El v. Britton, 523 U.S. 574, 600 (1998). In determining whether a genuine dispute of material fact exists, the court must read the evidence and draw all factual inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and must resolve any reasonable doubts in the non-movant’s favor. Skop v. City of Atlanta, 485 F.3d 1130, 1136 (11th Cir. 2007). Summary judgment should only be granted “[w]here the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party.” Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587.
A. Count IV of Cross Claim—Injunctive Relief In Count IV, the LeFrances seek injunctive relief, asking the Court to declare that Adrienne is the lawful beneficiary under the Policy. Thus, the question before this Court is whether the Decedent properly executed the change of beneficiary form in accordance with Florida law.
In Florida, “one who seeks to change the beneficiary of a life insurance policy must strictly comply with the policy’s terms.” U.S. Life Ins. Co. of N.Y. v. Logus Mfg. Corp., 845 F. Supp. 2d 1303, 1314 (S.D. Fla. 2012) (citing Miller v. Gulf Life Ins., 152 Fla. 221, 12 So. 2d 127 (1942)). A party claiming strict compliance generally must establish: “(1) the policy owner manifested a clear intent to the insurer of a desire to change the beneficiary and to designate the new beneficiary; and (2) the owner has taken substantial affirmative action to effectuate the change.” Id. The burden of proving that there has been strict compliance rests on the party claiming to be the substitute beneficiary. Id. Although the satisfaction of the strict compliance doctrine varies from case to case, a change of
beneficiary will be deemed complete when the insured “has taken all steps necessary, and otherwise done all in his power, to effect a change of beneficiary, and all that remains to be done is some ministerial duty on the party of the [insured].” Sheppard v. Crowley, 55 So. 841, 842 (Fla. 1911).
The family claims that the substitute beneficiaries in this case, Carole and Atilia, have failed to meet their burden of proving that strict compliance has been met. (Doc. 89, pp. 11–14). The family submits that the Policy clearly requires two things to effectuate a beneficiary change: 1) the insured must sign a form provided by Lincoln Benefit; and 2) the insured must file the signed form with Lincoln Benefit. (Doc. 89, p. 11).
This interpretation of the Policy’s requirements is supported by the plain language of the Policy, which states: “You may name new beneficiaries. We will provide a form to be
signed. You must file it with us. Upon receipt, it is effective as of the date you signed the form, subject to any action we have taken before we received it.” (Doc. 1-1, p. 6). The family argue that these requirements were not strictly complied with because the form was not filed by the Decedent. (Doc. 89, p. 12).4
Indeed, such a contention is supported by the facts of this case. It is undisputed that Conze requested the change of beneficiary form from Lincoln Benefit, and it was Conze who filled out and submitted the form back to Lincoln Benefit. (Doc. 89-3, p. 19; Doc. 92, ¶¶ 26–27). It is also undisputed that Conze did not represent the Decedent or receive instructions from the Decedent as to how the form was to be filled out or to how and when the form was to be submitted to Lincoln Benefit. (Id. ¶¶ 24, 31). Both parties admit that the Decedent did not send the change of beneficiary form to Lincoln Benefit. Instead, Carole gave the form to her husband, who gave the form to Conze, who then faxed the form to Lincoln Benefit on December 16, 2015. (Id. ¶¶ 43–45).
This does not meet the plain requirements of the terms of the Policy. This is not to say that the Decedent could not have requested someone to submit the change of beneficiary form on her behalf. However, in this case, the facts indicate that the Decedent did not request Conze, or anyone else, to submit the form on her behalf. The only evidence in the record that the Decedent even contemplated submitting the change of beneficiary form is found in Carole’s deposition, in which she testified that “[the Decedent] told me she wanted to add me as a beneficiary.” (Doc. 89-2, 56:20–22).
This statement only indicates the Decedent’s desire to add Carole as a beneficiary, and does nothing to establish that the requirements of the Policy were met. The statement of intent referenced in Carole’s deposition is simply insufficient evidence to support a change of beneficiary designation. See Great Am. Life Ins. Co. v. McLoughlin, 13-60924-CIV, 2013 WL 12089958, at *5 (S.D. Fla. Nov. 26, 2013) (“[A] ‘decedent’s mere intent to change the beneficiary of the policy [i]s legally insufficient absent an effective designation of beneficiary on the form required by the insurer.’”) (quoting Brown v. Di Petta, 448 So. 2d 561, 562 (Fla. 3d DCA 1984)).
In response to the LeFrances’ Motion for Summary Judgment, Carole argues that there are issues of fact regarding whether the Decedent changed the designated beneficiaries that should be decided by a jury. Most of Carole’s response focuses on whether or not the Decedent actually signed the change of beneficiary form. In only a few short sentences, Carole contends that the form was properly submitted to Lincoln Benefit, arguing that “there is nothing in the policy of insurance that explicitly prohibits a sick insured who was hospitalized from soliciting assistance from her own health care surrogate . . . to change her beneficiaries from her policy.” (Doc. 91, p. 18).
However, Carole admits through her Joint Stipulation of Agreed Material Facts that she gave the form to her husband who gave the form to Conze who then faxed the form to the insurance
company. There is no evidence in the record that the Decedent herself requested Conze to file the change of beneficiary form on her behalf. The law in Florida governing changes in beneficiaries of life insurance policies is clear: “the burden of proving that there has been strict compliance, and therefore an effective change of beneficiary, rests squarely on the person claiming as the substitute beneficiary.” U.S. Life Ins. Co. of N.Y., 845 F. Supp. 2d at 1315. In this case, Carole, the party seeking to be substitute beneficiary, failed to meet this burden. Accordingly the Court grants summary judgment as to Count IV of the LeFrances Cross Claim, and declares that the sole beneficiary of the Policy is Adrienne.
B. Counts I—III
Although the family seeks summary judgment as to all counts raised in this action, they fail to address Counts I through III in their Motion for Summary Judgment.
Accordingly, the Court denies summary judgment as to Counts I, II, and III.
For the foregoing reasons, it is ORDERED AND ADJUDGED as follows:
1. Cross Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART:
a. The Motion is GRANTED as to Count IV. The Court DECLARES that
Adrienne is the sole beneficiary of the Lincoln Benefit Term Life Insurance Policy No. 01T1598741.
b. The Motion is DENIED as to Counts I, II, and III.
DONE AND ORDERED in Orlando, Florida, on September 18, 2017.
Copies furnished to:
Counsel of Record
1 Adrienne and Nelda are referred to collectively herein as the “family.”
2 Although the family entitles Count IV as “Injunctive Relief,” it is clear from the allegations that the family seeks a declaratory judgment. Thus Court thus construes Count IV of the Counter Claim to be a claim for declaratory judgment. See, e.g., Burton v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 335 F.2d 317, 320 (5th Cir. 1964) (“[T]he Court is bound to grant whatever relief the facts show is necessary or appropriate”) (citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(c) (“Every other judgment should grant the relief to which each party is entitled, even if the party has not demanded that relief in its pleadings.”)).
3 The following facts are taken from the parties Joint Stipulation of Agreed Material Facts, which the Court deems admitted for purposes of this Motion. (Doc. 42, p. 8).
4 The family does not appear to contest that the Decedent signed the change of beneficiary form.