Bell v. Parker

Decision Date30 May 1990
Docket NumberNo. 07-CA-59413,07-CA-59413
Citation563 So.2d 594
PartiesJohn BELL v. Sandra PARKER, Ellen Parker, and Robert R. Parker, Jr.
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

James Ed Brown, Starkville, for appellant.

Ben F. Hilbun, Jr., Starkville, for appellees.

Before DAN M. LEE, P.J., and ANDERSON and PITTMAN, JJ.

DAN M. LEE, Presiding Justice, for the Court:

I.

This appeal concerns a dispute between the named beneficiary and the children of the deceased over the proceeds of a group life insurance policy. The Chancellor held that an oral request for change of beneficiary six (6) days prior to the death of the policyholder was effective and found in favor of the children. Finding no error in this decision, we affirm.

II.

Helen Louise Holmes [Helen] died from a massive stroke on Tuesday, December 2, 1986. At the time of her death she had three (3) children: Ellen Parker, Sandra Parker, and Robert R. Parker, Jr.

Helen and John Bell [John] had a relationship for approximately 13 years. At one time they contemplated marriage, and cohabited for seven (7) years. At the time of her death, Helen was living alone in a trailer.

Helen was an employee of Starkville Manor Nursing Home [Starkville Manor]. Through her employment she acquired accident insurance, group life insurance with $10,000.00 benefits through Provident Life & Accident Insurance Company, and membership in a credit union. Transactions between Starkville Manor and insurance companies were handled by Mr. Clay, Administrator of Starkville Manor. Insurance forms were kept in the office of Mr. Clay's Administrative Assistant, Donna Robinson [Donna]. Donna assisted the employees with the completion of the forms.

In 1981, Helen designated John as beneficiary on the group life insurance policy. Helen also designated John as beneficiary on the accident insurance policy and her credit union account. John was aware of his status as a named beneficiary on Helen's policies.

Approximately 4:00 p.m. on the afternoon of Wednesday, November 26, 1986, six (6) days prior to her death, Helen went into the office of the Mr. Clay. Donna, the At that time Helen presented Donna with a change of beneficiary form for her accident insurance, showing Ellen Parker and Sandra Parker as the new beneficiaries. Donna did not have a change of beneficiary form for the group life insurance policy, but told Helen she would get one for her. Six (6) days later, Helen died without having a written change of beneficiary form for her group life insurance policy as required by the terms of the policy.

Administrative Assistant, was the only person there; Mr. Clay was out of town for the Thanksgiving holidays. Helen told Donna that she wanted to remove John as the named beneficiary on all of her policies and substitute in his place her daughters. Helen stated her reason for wanting these changes: she had decided not to marry John.

Following Helen's death John went to Starkville Manor to inquire about the life insurance policy. He was told that Helen had desired a change in beneficiaries, that a change had been made, and Robert Parker had already been there; Starkville Manor gave John no other information regarding the life insurance policy. John filed a claim for the life insurance proceeds that same day, March 11, 1987.

John received several calls from Robert Parker. Robert told John that the children had filed a claim for the life insurance proceeds on March 19, 1987, and attempted to have John sign an affidavit relinquishing all rights to the proceeds; John refused. Acting upon a request from Robert, the funeral home also called John and requested he sign an affidavit relinquishing all rights to the life insurance proceeds; John refused.

Provident Life & Accident Insurance Company filed a Complaint of Interpleader against John Bell, Sandra Parker, Ellen Parker and Robert R. Parker, Jr. with the Chancery Court of Oktibbeha County, Mississippi on June 4, 1987. The proceeds of the policy, $10,000.00, were tendered into the registry of the court with the filing of the complaint. John filed his Answer to the Complaint, as did Susan, Ellen and Robert. John filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment to which Susan, Ellen and Robert filed their Answer.

A hearing was held November 19, 1987. Prior to the taking of testimony the parties entered into several stipulations: (1) Dismissing Provident Life & Accident Insurance Company; (2) All exhibits to the Motion for Partial Summary Judgment could be considered by the Chancellor; (3) Agreement to hear the case in chief rather than the Motion for Summary Judgment, reserving the right to renew the Motion for Summary Judgment at a later date; (4) A copy of the insurance policy was true and correct and could be entered as an exhibit to the hearing. An Order dismissing Provident Life & Accident Insurance Company was filed November 19, 1987.

On February 24, 1988, the learned Chancellor filed an excellent, well written and well reasoned opinion finding in favor of Sandra, Ellen and Robert. The Decree, which incorporated the Opinion, was filed March 8, 1988. A copy of the Decree and Opinion are attached to this opinion as Appendix "A".

John filed a Motion for New Trial or in the Alternative a Stay of Judgment March 15, 1988. By Order filed May 16, 1988, the Chancellor overruled the Motion for New Trial, the Stay of Judgment having been withdrawn as prematurely filed.

Being aggrieved, John timely filed his Notice of Appeal, along with a Motion for Stay of Judgment, May 16, 1988. An Order for Stay of Judgment with Supersedeas was timely filed and an appeal bond with supersedeas was approved by the Chancery Clerk of Oktibbeha County, Mississippi on June 2, 1988.

John raises but one (1) issue on appeal:

Whether or Not an Oral Request by an Insured for a Change of Beneficiary in a Group Life Insurance Policy Constitutes Substantial Compliance With Contractual Terms in the Policy Requiring That the Insured's Request for Change of Beneficiary be in Writing.

In considering this assignment, we are bound by our familiar standard of review: This Court will not disturb the

findings of a Chancellor unless the Chancellor was manifestly wrong, clearly erroneous or an erroneous legal standard was applied. Bowers Window and Door Co., Inc. v. Dearman, 549 So.2d 1309 (Miss.1989) citing Culbreath v. Johnson, 427 So.2d 705, 707-08 (Miss.1983); Johnson v. Hinds County, 524 So.2d 947, 956 (Miss.1988), Gibson v. Manuel, 534 So.2d 199, 204 (Miss.1988); Bell v. City of Bay St. Louis, 467 So.2d 657, 661 (Miss.1985). If a Chancellor fails to make findings of fact on issues of fact, this Court assumes that the issues were resolved in favor of the Appellee. Bryant v. Cameron, 473 So.2d 174, 179 (Miss.1985). In a bench trial, the trial judge has sole authority to determine the credibility of the witnesses. Rice Researchers, Inc. v. Hiter, 512 So.2d 1259, 1265 (Miss.1987).

III.

In the case sub judice, the Chancellor and the parties state that there is no Mississippi law on the precise question. After careful research we found no Mississippi case directly on point, that is, where an oral request to change beneficiary was made and held to be "substantial compliance" and therefore sufficient to effectuate a change in beneficiaries. There are, however, two (2) Mississippi cases which, although factually distinguishable from the case sub judice, provide evidence of this Court's stand on the issue of substantial compliance: Faulkner v. Faulkner, 5 So.2d 421 (1942) cited by the Chancellor and the parties, and Gayden v. Kirk, 207 Miss. 861, 43 So.2d 568 (1949).

The insured in Faulkner returned two (2) insurance policies to the company requesting a change of beneficiary. 5 So.2d at 422. The company sent the insured forms for the changes, which the insured completed and returned to the company. Id. Thereafter, the company returned the policies, but failed to make the requested change on one of them. Id. In holding that a change of beneficiaries had occurred, this Court said:

In such case, the intent of the insured should be given full weight and where such intent is expressed in the manner required by the insurer and the insured has met all requirements prerequisite to a change in beneficiary, equity will regard that as done which ought to have been done. [citations omitted] Here there was ample testimony upon which the trial court could find that the intent of insured was that Emma Faulkner should be made the beneficiary. There were no other steps which insured could have taken so that he is held to have done all that he reasonably could to effect such change. It is not relevant that the policy was not examined after its return and delivery ... Such omission is consistent with a reasonable presumption of compliance. His duty was to satisfy the company and not his curiosity.

5 So.2d at 422-23.

Gayden involved the insurance company's requirement that change of beneficiary appear on the face of the document unless the insured could make an affidavit showing the original document had been stolen or lost. 43 So.2d at 569. In that case, the originally named secondary beneficiary absconded with the original policy. Id. 43 So.2d at 570. The insured sent letters and affidavits to the insurance company attempting to change the secondary beneficiary. Id. This Court upheld the lower court's decision that a change of beneficiary had been effectuated, stating:

We are of the opinion that this Court should follow the rule announced in the cases of Commonwealth Life Insurance Company v. Lowry et al., 5 Cir., 41 F.Supp 1, and Lahey v. Lahey, 174 N.Y. 146, 66 N.E. 670, 61 L.R.A. 791, 95 Am.St.Rep. 554, which hold, in substance, that where an insured does all within his power to have the policy endorsed to designate a beneficiary of his choice, except the return of the policy for such endorsement, and such return of the policy to the company is prevented by the wrongful withholding of the same by a previously...

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