Insurance: HART V. HART (SC 6/15/2006)

INSURANCE: Annuity beneficiary
DATE:  6/15/2006

Appellant Hart (wife of deceased) appeals entry of SJ by the TC for Appellees (adult children of deceased from prior marriage), which held that the deceased had substantially complied with the change of beneficiary requirements under the annuity policy he had purchased years earlier. The deceased’s wife was the original beneficiary, but a few years prior to death had notified his insurance agent that he was having marital problems and was considering changing the beneficiary. The agent sent him the appropriate change forms and, important to the court’s ruling, affixed a handwritten note directing him to "fill in the correct info, sign and return forms." Subsequently, the deceased (a successful Corbin businessman) was shot and killed on the front porch of his home (the court’s opinion makes no mention of any relationship of his death to the annuity policy). Thereafter, Appellee found the change forms in his father’s business office that had been signed and dated by the deceased at the time they had first been sent to him. The forms were mailed to the insurer, who acknowledged receiving the forms but assumed no position on who was entitled to the annuity benefits.

Appellees filed suit in Whitley Circuit Court claiming their father had successfully changed the beneficiary of the policy from his wife to them. TC ruled that the deceased had substantially complied with the insurer’s change of beneficiary requirements, as its contract stated in relevant part, "Upon receipt of notice …, the new [beneficiary] designation will take effect as of the date the notice is signed, whether or not the Annuitant or Contract Owner is alive at the time of receipt of such notice." Appellant appealed the TC’s ruling, which was upheld by the COA on the same grounds.

The Supreme Court acknowledged the above contract provision, but noted that Kentucky law on this subject states that substantial compliance is deemed sufficient only when the insured has done all he could do under the circumstances to effectuate a change in the beneficiary and all that he believed was necessary to accomplish this task. See Hill v. Union Central Life Ins. Co., 513 S.W.2d 808 (Ky. 1974). The SC did not feel that the deceased in this case did all he could do to process the change since he had been advised in writing to sign and date the forms AND return them in the self-addressed stamped envelope provided to him by his agent. Justices Lambert and Graves dissented because they felt that the case should have been submitted to a jury for determination even though the facts were undisputed since reasonable persons to differ on the inferences to be drawn from the facts. 
Chad Kessinger, ed.

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