Arkansas Supreme Court finds for spouse

In Primerica Life Insurance v. Wilson, the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed a jury's decision to award the life insurance benefits to the spouse of the insured. As set out in the decision, the basic facts were:

The record reflects that in November 1987, Gary purchased a life insurance policy from Primerica in the amount of $100,000. He also purchased a spouse rider and a child rider. At the time, Gary was married to Mary Jane, and he named her the primary beneficiary, with his daughter being the contingent beneficiary. Gary and Mary Jane divorced in March 1993. Gary then married Ronda in July 1994. They were married for nine years, before Gary died from Lou Gehrig's disease on July 25, 2003.

In August 1996, while Gary was paying his life insurance premium, he commented to Ronda: “Well, I guess I need to change the beneficiary on my policy, since I'm going to keep you.” Gary then asked Ronda to get him the telephone, and he called Primerica. Ronda heard Gary say that he was divorced and remarried, and that he needed to change the beneficiary on his policy. She said that he also stated that he needed to change the spouse rider and child rider.

A few weeks later, Gary received a policy-change application from Primerica. On that form, he listed Ronda as his new spouse. According to Ronda, who was present when he filled out the form, Gary noticed that there was no specific beneficiary form, so he wrote on the front page of the policy-change application “change name of spouse & change name of child rider.”

The White County jury decided that the widow was entitled to the proceeds, not the ex-wife. The Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed that decision under the doctrine of substantial compliance.  In doing so, the Arkansas Supreme Court rejected the ex-wife's contention that the jury should not have considered the insured's statements regarding wanting his current wife to have the benefits. The court explained:

These statements evidenced Gary's belief that Ronda was the beneficiary of his life insurance policy and his intention that she be entitled to the proceeds of that policy. Generally speaking, statements of a declarant's belief are not admissible under Rule 803 unless the statements relate to the execution, revocation, identification, or terms of the declarant's will. This court has recognized that provisions in life insurance contracts with reference to beneficiaries or changes in beneficiaries are in the nature of a last will and testament and, therefore, “are construed in accordance with the rules applicable to the construction of wills.”

This is an example of a person who was not the officially designated beneficiary receiving the policy proceeds.  Anyone involved in a life insurance beneficiary interpleader dispute should consult with a lawyer experienced in handling such matters.

J. Michael YoungComment