Articles Posted in Estate Planning

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In 1987, Joseph Bagley purchased a cancer and dread-disease policy through his friend and insurance agent, Jackie McPhail. The policy was issued by American Heritage Life Insurance Company. McPhail worked as an independent insurance broker, and she was a registered agent with American Heritage at the time the policy was written. The policy indicated that Bagley purchased coverage concerning cancer and dread disease, a home-recovery rider, and a hospital intensive-care rider. Bagley also had an option to purchase life insurance; however, McPhail testified that Bagley did not purchase life insurance under this policy because he had purchased a separate life-insurance policy. In 2008, Bagley was diagnosed with cancer. Bagley contacted McPhail to file a claim under the policy and to "change the beneficiary" of the policy from his estate to Michael and Betty Strait. McPhail testified that she had ceased writing policies for American Heritage; however, she still retained the authority to service Bagley's policy, and she acquired his written consent to receive information regarding his policy from the insurance company. While Bagley was in the hospital, McPhail presented an American Heritage change-of-beneficiary form, which Bagley ultimately signed. The signature was witnessed by Bagley's physician, a nurse, and McPhail. Bagley orally communicated that he wished for the beneficiary to be changed from his estate to the Straits. At the time that Bagley signed the form, the Straits had yet to be listed as beneficiaries on the form. McPhail met with the Straits after the form was signed to confirm their correct legal names to be placed on the change-of-beneficiary form at a later time. McPhail provided that she did not fully complete the form because she was attempting to contact American Heritage to confirm the correct procedure for completing the process; however, American Heritage's office was closed because of Hurricane Fay, and McPhail never succeeded in speaking with American Heritage regarding the matter. Bagley's physician, who witnessed Bagley signing the form, later communicated to Betty Strait that his attorney advised that the form could not be used because the Straits' names were not listed on the form prior to Bagley's signature. Betty Strait relayed this to McPhail, who then attempted to contact American Heritage's legal department. McPhail called the company on multiple occasions, but she never received a return phone call. Soon thereafter, Bagley passed away, and the form was never completed. The estate was probated and the Straits did not contest the passage of the policy proceeds to the estate at the time that the estate was being settled. The executor of Bagley's will, William Kinstley, petitioned for the approval of the estate's final accounting, which included the policy proceeds. The Straits initiated legal action against McPhail and American Heritage in Hinds County Circuit Court, arguing that Bagley intended for them to receive the proceeds from the cancer policy. The Straits alleged breach of contract, tortious breach of contract, negligence and gross negligence, breach of fiduciary duties and the duty of good faith and fair dealing, bad-faith refusal to pay benefits and to promptly and adequately investigate the claim, misrepresentation and/or failure to procure, promissory and/or equitable estoppel, and they sought a claim for declaratory relief. McPhail filed a motion to dismiss, which was granted by the circuit court. The circuit court found that the issue had been previously litigated and resolved in chancery court, and that no appeal had been taken from the chancery court judgment. Likewise, the circuit court granted American Heritage's motion for summary judgment, finding that there were no genuine issues of material fact to be resolved. The Court of Appeals reversed the judgment and remanded the case, finding that genuine issues of material fact did exist and that res judicata and collateral estoppel did not bar the Straits' claims. Because the Straits failed to raise any issues upon which relief may be granted, the circuit court's grant of McPhail's motion to dismiss was proper. However, the circuit court erred in granting the motion to dismiss based on res judicata and collateral estoppel. Furthermore, the circuit court properly granted American Heritage's motion for summary judgment: the Straits were never eligible to be third-party beneficiaries under the policy, and they have failed to show any equitable entitlement to reimbursement. For those reasons, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals and reinstated the circuit court's judgment. View "Strait v. McPhail " on Justia Law

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Delores Williams, the personal representative of the Estate of Edward Murry, and Matthew Whitaker, Jr., the personal representative of the Estate of Annie Mae Murry (PRs), brought a declaratory judgment action to determine whether a GEICO motor vehicle insurance policy issued to the Murrys provided $15,000 or $100,000 in liability proceeds for bodily injury for an accident in which both of the Murrys were killed. The circuit court concluded coverage was limited to the statutory minimum of $15,000 based on a family step-down provision in the policy that reduced coverage for bodily injury to family members from the stated policy coverage of $100,000 to the statutory minimum amount mandated by South Carolina law during the policy period. The PRs appealed, contending the step-down provision was ambiguous and/or violative of public policy. The Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part. The Court agreed with the circuit court that GEICO's policy is not ambiguous, but concluded the family step-down provision, which reduced the coverage under the liability policy from the stated policy amount to the statutory minimum, was violative of public policy and was, therefore, void. "The provision not only conflicte[d] with the mandates set forth in section 38-77-142, but its enforcement would be injurious to the public welfare." View "Williams v. GEICO" on Justia Law

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The Alaska Workers' Compensation Board denied a death benefit claim filed by the decedent's same-sex partner because the death benefit statute grants benefits only to a worker’s "widow or widower" as defined by statute. The Board construed these terms by applying the Marriage Amendment to the Alaska Constitution, which defined marriage as "only between one man and one woman," thus excluding a decedent's same-sex partner. Because this exclusion lacked a fair and substantial relationship to the purpose of the statute, the Supreme Court concluded that this restriction on the statutory definition of "widow" violated the surviving partner's right to equal protection under the law. View "Harris v. Millennium Hotel" on Justia Law