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Lincoln Benefit Life Co. v. Occhipinti

March 16, 2009

LINCOLN BENEFIT LIFE COMPANY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
LINDA OCCHIPINTI, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS EXECUTRIX OF THE ESTATE OF JOAN E. GREGORY, SUSAN BRUNO, PATRICIA SMITH, ALBERT WYNN, GREGORY WYNN, AND ROBERT WYNN, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS, AND SANDRA LOPEZ KEEFER, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean County, Docket No. L-1228-08.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued January 5, 2009

Before Judges Reisner and Sapp-Peterson.

This matter arises out of a dispute over an annuity contract which the decedent, Joan Gregory (Gregory), purchased in August 2004 from plaintiff, Lincoln Benefit Life Company (Lincoln). Gregory's children, Linda Occhipinti, individually and as executrix of the decedent's estate, Susan Bruno, Patricia Smith, and Albert Wynn (collectively "defendants"), appeal from the grant of summary judgment in favor of plaintiff. The court declared that the funds Lincoln deposited into court should be disbursed to Gregory's remaining child, defendant Sandra Lopez (Lopez). We affirm.

When Gregory purchased the policy in 2004, she did not designate a beneficiary. Rather, she stated that a trust was being prepared. No trust was prepared prior to Gregory's death in 2005. She died testate. Under the terms of the annuity, in the absence of a designated beneficiary, the proceeds of the policy were to be distributed as follows:

i. Your spouse, or if he or she is no longer living,

ii. Your surviving children equally, or if you have no surviving children,

iii. Your estate.

For the purposes of this Certificate, children are natural children and adopted children only.

Unless you have provided written directions to the contrary, in a form satisfactory to us, the Beneficiaries will take equal shares. If there is more than one Beneficiary in a class and one of the Beneficiaries predeceases the Owner, the deceased Beneficiary's entire share will be divided among the remaining Beneficiaries in that class in proportion to the remaining Beneficiaries' original shares.

Gregory died testate. In Gregory's will, she expressly disinherited Lopez. Lincoln filed a complaint in interpleader seeking declaratory relief (1) determining the rights of the surviving children, (2) authorizing it to deposit the proceeds into court until the rights of the parties could be determined, and (3) releasing it as a party once the funds were deposited into court. On September 7, 2007, the court entered an order directing that "1/7th of the annuity is to be paid to each of the following: Susan Bruno, Patricia Smith, Albert Wynn, Gregory Wynn, Robert Wynn, Linda Occhipinti and Clerk of the Superior Court of New Jersey."

Thereafter, Lopez moved for summary judgment, declaring that she was entitled to distribution of the remaining 1/7th share of the annuity proceeds deposited into court in accordance with the terms of the annuity contract. The court granted the motion, rejecting defendants' contention that Gregory's Will, in which she expressly disinherited Lopez, was controlling, not the annuity contract:

The argument that's made to me is that the Will that she executed is the method by which the money was to be disposed of. However, I find that there's a valid contract between Lincoln Benefit Life Insurance Company and the decedent, and under the terms of that agreement if the party to the annuity did not instruct who the beneficiaries are, there is a provision in the contract; it goes to the spouse if there is one, and if there is no spouse it goes to the surviving children equally. If there's no children, it then goes to the Estate. But there are children, and this document falls outside of the Will. ...


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