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Hutchinson v. Goceliak

Decided: April 9, 1962.


Herbert, J.s.c.


[73 NJSuper Page 551] This case involves the disposition of $30,082.28, the amount which became due upon a life insurance policy when Donald L. Bunnin was killed in an accident. The money was paid by the defendant New York Life Insurance Company to John Goceliak. Was that payment proper, and, if not, how can the error be corrected? If a proper payment for the insurance company to make, is Goceliak entitled to keep what he received, or are there equities requiring him to treat it as an asset of the partnership of which he and Bunnin were the partners when the

latter died? Some consideration of the insurance policy and of the partnership is called for in answering these questions.

Bunnin and Goceliak formed a partnership in 1955, naming their firm the Halladay Truck Leasing Company. There was no written partnership agreement. Goceliak, who was the operator of a garage, appears to have acquired a truck by foreclosing a lien, and Bunnin, without money to buy the truck, was willing to contribute to the partnership by matching his time and ability as a driver and business solicitor against Goceliak's vehicle. Halladay Truck Leasing Company never flourished. Goceliak testified that for a goodly portion of the firm's life there was no bank account. At times there were unpaid bills and unsatisfied judgments. Bunnin appears to have devoted his full working time to the affairs of the Halladay company, but Goceliak kept right on with his garage business which was not an activity of the partnership.

On August 8, 1957 Bunnin applied to the New York Life Insurance Company for a $20,000 policy to be made payable to Halladay Truck Leasing Co. John Gacos, the insurance agent who took the application, was subsequently notified by the insurance company that it would not issue the proposed policy on Bunnin's life unless Bunnin's partner was insured for the benefit of the firm in an equal amount. Efforts were made to persuade the insurance company to change its position and insure Bunnin only, but when these failed Goceliak filed an application dated September 28, 1957 for $15,000 of life insurance to be made payable to Halladay Truck Leasing Co. That application included a request for $5,000 of additional insurance in favor of Mrs. Goceliak.

If insurance policies had been issued upon the application of Bunnin dated August 8 and the application of Goceliak dated September 28 Halladay Truck Leasing Company would have been the beneficiary of both. No such policies were issued, however, because there was a sudden

change of plan and the New York Life Insurance Company executed and delivered a policy on the life of each man payable to the other, both policies being dated October 17, 1957, though bearing the "policy date" of October 1, 1957. The one insuring the life of Bunnin named the beneficiary in these words "John Goceliak, partner of the insured" and the similar policy on the life of Goceliak named as beneficiary "Donald L. Bunnin, partner of the insured." Both Goceliak and the agent Gacos testified that there was a decision shortly before the policies were issued, to drop the previous idea of naming Halladay Truck Leasing Company as beneficiary and to make Bunnin the beneficiary of the policy on Goceliak and Goceliak the beneficiary of the policy on Bunnin. There was testimony from Goceliak that a final decision about naming beneficiaries became important only when the two men were told that they could obtain insurance; that it was then decided that a survivor, not the firm, should be able to collect if his partner died, a decision which was explained to Gacos, who then obtained policies payable as described above. Gacos and Goceliak stated that when the policies were delivered Gacos explained to the partners that if one died, the insurance would be paid to the other. At the time of delivering the policies Gacos had both men sign again his company's regular application form. These applications were dated October 17, 1957 and, in contrast to the earlier applications mentioned above, specified that the beneficiary of the policy on Bunnin's life would be "John Goceliak, partner of the insured," and the beneficiary of the policy on Goceliak's life would be "Donald L. Bunnin, partner of the insured."

When Bunnin was killed on July 16, 1959 he was still Goceliak's partner in Halladay Truck Leasing Company and his life was still insured by the policy issued October 17, 1957. The policy contained a provision that "This policy and the application for it, a copy of which is attached hereto and made a part hereof, constitute the entire contract." Upon proof of Bunnin's death being submitted to

the insurance company by Goceliak, it issued a check to him which named as payee "John Goceliak." The amount of the check was $30,082.28, being the full face amount of the policy plus a double indemnity benefit for accidental death.

Against the insurance company plaintiff argues that the policy proceeds should have been paid by a check to the order of "John Goceliak, partner of the insured." Behind this argument are contentions that the insurance was really a partnership asset and that naming the payee of the check in the same words used on the face of the policy to designate its beneficiary would have preserved, in some way, the partnership status of the funds represented by the check. I do not agree with plaintiff, and conclude that the check which was issued to "John Goceliak" by the defendant New York Life Insurance Company was sufficient to discharge the company's obligations under the policy. There is authority which supports this conclusion. Doney v. Equitable Life Assurance Society , 97 N.J.L. 393, 396 (Sup. Ct. 1922), involved a certificate of life insurance naming as beneficiary "Florence K. Downey, Wife." In fact, Fred Doney, or Downey, the man insured, was living with Florence at the time of his death, but his only wife was the plaintiff, Alma Doney. The court reversed a judgment which had been entered in favor of Alma, and after citing a number of cases said,

"These authorities hold that, when the beneficiary clause names a particular individual, describing her as 'wife,' that word is to be taken as mere descriptio personae , and that ...

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