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John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co.

September 30, 1999

JOHN HANCOCK MUTUAL LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY,
PLAINTIFF,
V.
CLAUDIA TIMBO, EXECUTRIX OF THE ESTATE OF JOHN F. SMITH, LOIS M. SMITH, AND WILLIAM J. SMITH, A MINOR,
DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Cooper, J.

FOR PUBLICATION

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This suit involves the determination of the beneficiary of a group life insurance policy and a stock savings and investment plan. This Court has jurisdiction to hear the matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1332. The case was tried before the Court without a jury on May 14, 1999 and June 15, 1999. The Court provides the following Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a). We will award: (1) the proceeds of the decedent John F. Smith's life insurance policy, paid into this Court, to Lois M. Smith and (2) the proceeds of the decedent's savings and stock investment plan to the Estate of John F. Smith. Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 58, we will enter judgment accordingly.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company ("John Hancock") filed this interpleader action on November 12, 1997 to determine the proper beneficiary of the proceeds of decedent John F. Smith's group life insurance policy issued to the Ford Motor Company and governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq. William J. Smith ("William") and the Estate of John F. Smith ("Estate") answered John Hancock's Complaint and cross claimed, alleging the following: (1) William is the proper beneficiary of the life insurance proceeds because a 1979 divorce decree required the decedent to name him as an irrevocable beneficiary of the proceeds of decedent's life insurance policy and (2) Lois M. Smith ("Lois") waived any claim to the decedent's assets through the 1996 divorce decree terminating her marriage to the decedent. Lois answered and cross claimed, contending that she is the proper beneficiary of the proceeds of decedent's life insurance policy, and claiming the assets accumulated in decedent's savings and stock investment plan through Ford Motor Company ("SSIP") by virtue of her designation as beneficiary of the life insurance policy at the time of decedent's death. (Pretrial Order entered 5-27-98 ¶¶ 4-5.) By consent judgment entered January 21, 1998, this Court dismissed John Hancock as a party to this case, contingent upon payment into Court of the proceeds of the life insurance policy. John Hancock paid $27,988.44 into Court on February 18, 1998. This Court held a non-jury trial to resolve the crossclaims on May 14, 1999 and June 15, 1999. The Court hereby issues its Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law.

FINDINGS OF FACT

John F. Smith ("decedent"), died on November 3, 1996, having retired in the late 1970's from his lifelong employment with Ford Motor Company ("Ford"). At the time of his death there were two assets in his Ford ERISA plan: (1) a group life insurance policy issued by John Hancock, with death benefits payable in the amount of $27,988.44; and (2) the assets in his SSIP, consisting primarily of Ford stock, having an approximate market value of $145,000 at the time of death. As of February 18, 1998 the life insurance benefits totaling $27,988.44 were paid into this Court for deposit in its interest-bearing trust account, and John Hancock was granted a discharge in interpleader. The SSIP account remains under the management of Ford until disposition of this case.

Decedent was married twice in the course of his life. The first marriage was to Barbara E. Smith on December 21, 1950. (E-3 at 1.) The three children of that marriage are (in order of birth) defendant Claudia Timbo, executrix of the Estate ("Claudia"), Raymond J. Smith ("Raymond"), and William. They are the beneficiaries of the Estate. (E-1.) The marriage of decedent and Barbara Smith ended with a divorce decree entered on November 27, 1979 ("the first divorce decree"). (E- 3.) At that time the two older children were emancipated and William was age thirteen. The first divorce decree provided in pertinent part:

[T]he defendant [husband] will maintain the present life insurance policies which he possesses: one being a group policy issued by John Hancock Insurance Company in the approximate face amount of $20,000.00, which defendant shall maintain so long as it is available to him at his place of employment; the other issued by Prudential Insurance Company in the approximate face amount of $5,000.00. The infant child of the marriage shall be named as irrevocable beneficiary on said policies. (E-3 at 4.)

The Prudential policy referred to in that provision is not in issue in this case. Nor does Barbara E. Smith assert any claim herein.

Decedent was married to defendant Lois M. Smith on July 23, 1985. (E-5 at 1.) Lois has a daughter, Deborah Malkenson ("Deborah"), from a prior marriage. No children were born to the marriage of decedent and Lois. Their marriage ended in a divorce decree entered on August 30, 1996. (Id.)

The witnesses testifying at trial were as follows: the Smith siblings Claudia, Raymond and William; *fn1 Lois M. Smith and her daughter Deborah; Brian F. O'Malley, Esq., who represented decedent in the divorce from Lois; and a fact witness presented by Lois named Sallie Sheasley. *fn2 Most of the historical facts are undisputed, and those are set forth in this section of the opinion. To the degree that any disputed facts are material to resolution of the issues, we have discussed those in the following section.

Decedent worked at the Ford Motor Company plant in Edison, New Jersey from age 17 until his retirement in the late 1970's. He had a sixth grade education. At the time of his retirement decedent was residing in Montvale, New Jersey. He met Lois in 1977, and they dated from that time until they married in 1985. Lois works as a housekeeper. She went through the sixth grade in elementary school, then was placed in special education classes until she quit school at age 16. In or about 1984, decedent moved to Toms River, New Jersey (near his son Raymond), where he bought a home in a retirement community which had a mini-mall and other amenities for the residents. He and Lois resided in that home after they were married in July, 1985.

Lois owned a home in Garfield, New Jersey from approximately 1987 through 1994. She and decedent separated several times before they eventually divorced. During those periods Lois typically returned to her own home in Garfield, which was nearby the home of her daughter and her aged mother. After she sold that house she moved to another residence in the same adult community as the home of decedent.

Decedent made a will dated January 8, 1987. At that time he and Lois had been married for 1 ½ years and they were separated. In that will he bequeathed his entire estate (except small specific bequests not here relevant) to his three adult children. He expressly left Lois out of the will, stating "I specifically make no provision for my wife, LOIS M. SMITH." (E-1 ¶ 7.) On June 6, 1988, decedent went in person to the Ford Group Office and changed the beneficiary designation for his John Hancock life insurance policy from William to Lois. (E-4.) At that time they were reconciled and again living together. When decedent executed that change of beneficiary William was 22 years of age and working at the New Jersey shore, having completed high school at age 17- 18 and not gone to college. It is undisputed that there is no record that decedent ever made any written beneficiary designation for his SSIP account assets.

Decedent was diagnosed with cancer in September, 1993. He also suffered from a disabling heart condition and emphysema. Thereafter he underwent several hospitalizations as well as periods of outpatient treatment. He died at home on November 3, 1996. *fn3 William was residing with him at that time, but had not lived with decedent while he and Lois were married and living together.

Decedent filed for divorce from Lois in December, 1993. A formal separation order was entered by consent on August 19, 1994 which addressed pendente lite property and support issues and provided that the case would be placed on the inactive list until August 1, 1995. The matter was reached for trial on June 4, 1996, and a settlement was reached which was placed on the record that day. Both parties were represented by counsel at that hearing. *fn4 Counsel for decedent summarized the terms of the settlement at the divorce hearing, and both decedent and Lois stated their consent. (E-6 at 3-11.) Counsel for decedent subsequently submitted to the ...


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