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Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. v. Miner

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

April 18, 2017

SUSAN J. MINER, et al., Defendants.



         I. Introduction

         This is an action in interpleader concerning entitlement to the proceeds of a life insurance policy (the “Policy”) issued by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (“MetLife”) on the life of Ruth E. Wright (“Wright”), now deceased. MetLife was dismissed from the action after it deposited the policy proceeds plus accumulated interest with the clerk of the court. The claimants, Susan J. Miner (“Miner”), Marcia Brown (“Brown”), and Pamela Whitacre (“Whitacre”) - the latter of whom is named in her capacity of Executrix of Wright's Estate - are all daughters of Wright's. Miner claims that she is the rightful recipient of the funds because, in 2011, Wright assigned ownership of the Policy to her, and she became the sole primary beneficiary. Brown and Whitacre maintain that the document whereby the assignment was accomplished is a forgery, and Wright's Estate is the rightful beneficiary. The parties, all of whom proceeded pro se, consented to the exercise of this court's jurisdiction for all purposes. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); Fed.R.Civ.P. 73. After a two-day bench trial, the court finds that Miner is the owner and beneficiary of the Policy and is entitled to the Policy proceeds.

         II. Findings of Fact[1]

         Wright obtained the Policy on March 3, 1983, through her insurance agent, Paul Catelotti. She named her Estate as the sole primary beneficiary of the Policy proceeds. The Policy contained the following provisions regarding changing owners and beneficiaries:

Change of Ownership - You may name a new owner at any time.
Beneficiary - The beneficiary is the person or persons to whom the insurance proceeds are payable when the insured dies. …. If no beneficiary or contingent beneficiary is named … the owner (or the owner's estate) will be the beneficiary. ….
How to Change the Owner or the Beneficiary - You may change the owner, contingent owner, beneficiary or contingent beneficiary of this policy by written notice or assignment of the policy.

         On November 23, 1993, Wright assigned ownership of the Policy to Flynn & Dagnoli Funeral Home, Inc., (“Flynn & Dagnoli”) in North Adams, Massachusetts, and Flynn & Dagnoli became the sole primary beneficiary. Wright had entered into a pre-need funeral/burial contract with Flynn & Dagnoli to be buried in Massachusetts, where she resided at the time, and she executed the assignment in Flynn & Dagnoli's favor in order to fund the arrangement. Wright's son, Robert Wright (“Robert”), was with Wright when she made the prearrangements with Flynn & Dagnoli, and he assisted her in the process.

         Wright moved to Florida in 2009. On September 24, 2009, Wright executed a durable power of attorney (“POA”) appointing Miner, who also lived in Florida, as her agent to handle various financial and legal matters on her behalf, including the authority to “act[ ] as [her] attorney or proxy with respect to any policy of insurance on [her] life, and in such capacity to exercise any rights, privileges or options which [she] may have thereunder and pertaining thereto.”

         Sometime after her move to Florida, Wright also completed and signed a “Five Wishes” document, an end-of-life planning tool, in which she stated her desire to have her body cremated after her death.[2] Miner provided a copy of Wright's “Five Wishes” to Claudia Hunter (“Hunter”), one of her sisters, and another of Wright's daughters, who also lived in Florida. Because of their proximity to their mother, Miner and Hunter both acted as caregivers for their mother in her final years.

         In late April or early May 2011, Miner called Robert and informed him that Wright had designated Miner as her power of attorney and that her funeral prearrangements were to be moved from Massachusetts to Florida. Miner asked Robert where Wright's life insurance policy was, and Robert advised that it was with Flynn & Dagnoli.

         In a document dated May 18, 2011, Flynn & Dagnoli transferred its rights and interests in the Policy and its proceeds back to Wright. Miner contacted Catelotti by telephone and requested that he send Wright the appropriate document for Wright to transfer ownership of the Policy to Miner.[3] Catelotti mailed a two-page “Absolute Assignment” form to Wright (the “Absolute Assignment”). The Absolute Assignment provides that it is “only for a complete Transfer of Ownership, ” and the “new owner[ ] will be the primary beneficiary [ ] unless a different beneficiary designation is made by the new owner.” Catelotti sent the Absolute Assignment with certain information already filled in, including the number of the Policy, Wright's name in the spaces provided for “Insured” and “Owner, ” and Miner's name in the spaces provided for “Assignee.” The Absolute Assignment provides that, by executing it, “Owner … assign[s] ownership of the policy with all rights, powers, interests, privileges, benefits, options, sums of money and all proceeds under the policy to: Assignee.” Catelotti included check marks on the first page next to a space for “Owner's Initials” and on the second page next to spaces for ...

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