Monday, April 12, 2021

No. 416: An Interesting Beneficiary Dispute

On January 22, 2021, a three-judge panel of a state appellate court in Georgia unanimously upheld a trial court ruling in an interesting beneficiary dispute between the widow and a granddaughter of the insured. For ease of reference, here are the key parties:
Donald: Donald Usher, insured, grandfather of Emery
Emery: Sarah Emery, granddaughter of Donald
Gayle: Gayle Usher, widow of Donald
GTL: Guarantee Trust Life Insurance Company, insurer
I have the trial court ruling, the appellate court panel ruling, and some documents from the trial court proceedings. Here I describe the case based on those rulings and documents. The two rulings are in the complimentary package offered at the end of this post. (See Emery v. GTL, State Court of Gwinnett County, Georgia, Case No. 18-C-04523-S6, and Georgia Court of Appeals, Third Division, Case No. A20A2082.)

Background of the Case
On October 15, 2010, GTL issued a $25,000 policy on the life of Donald. Gayle was the beneficiary. On September 11, 2015, Donald made Emery the owner and beneficiary. I found no explanation of the reason why Donald made the change.

In August 2016, about a month before Donald died, Gayle called GTL and inquired about the policy. GTL initially informed Gayle that it could not discuss the policy with her without the permission of the owner.

On August 15, 2016, despite not having sought Emery's permission to discuss the policy with Gayle, GTL faxed a policy change form to Gayle. On August 18, 2016, Gayle returned the policy change form to GTL. When GTL received the form from Gayle, it was missing a page requiring the signatures of Gayle and Emery. GTL notified Gayle and Emery that it could not process the form because it did not contain the signatures.

Emery did not respond to GTL at that time. Gayle responded that she had retained a copy of the signature page, and faxed it to GTL. The fax showed the purported signatures of Gayle and Emery.

On August 31, 2016, GTL updated its records to reflect that Gayle was the owner and beneficiary. On September 9, 2016, Donald died. On October 15, 2016, GTL paid the death benefit to Gayle. A year later, on October 3, 2017, Emery's attorney wrote to GTL and enclosed an affidavit from Emery confirming her status as owner and beneficiary of the policy.

Emery's Lawsuit
On June 18, 2018, Emery filed a lawsuit against GTL alleging bad faith failure to perform under an insurance contract, breach of contract, and negligence. After a hearing, the trial court granted GTL's motion for summary judgment. The trial court reasoned that, because GTL had paid the beneficiary named in its file, the company had complied with applicable law and was therefore insulated from liability.

Emery's Appeal
On appeal, Emery argued that the trial court erred in finding that GTL paid the death benefit to Gayle in accordance with the terms of the policy as contemplated by §33-24-41 of the Georgia Code. The appellate court panel disagreed with Emery. The panel said the statute in question does not impose on an insurance company the duty to investigate and determine whether a person fraudulently completed and submitted a policy change form.

General Observations
As indicated at the beginning of this post, I think this is an interesting case. Because I am not an attorney, it would be inappropriate for me to express a legal opinion on the case. Having said that, it is my personal belief that Gayle stole the death benefit from Emery.

Available Material
I am offering a complimentary 10-page PDF consisting of the trial court ruling (3 pages) and the appellate court panel ruling (7 pages). Email and ask for the April 2021 package about the case of Emery v. GTL.