Butcher v. Pollard

Decision Date28 September 1972
Citation288 N.E.2d 204,32 Ohio App.2d 1
Parties, 62 A.L.R.3d 1316, 61 O.O.2d 1 BUTCHER, Appellee, v. POLLARD et al., Appellants.
CourtOhio Court of Appeals

Syllabus by the Court

The word 'children,' as it appears in the substitute beneficiary clause of a group life insurance policy, is to be construed to mean all offspring, regardless of whether they are born in or out of wedlock.

John G. Pegg and Frank C. Lyons, Cleveland, for appellee.

William G. Meckler, Arter & Hadden and Edward C. Baran, Cleveland, for appellants.

JACKSON, Judge.

The case at bar invites consideration of the plight of a child who was denied benefits under her father's group life insurance policy solely because she suffered the misfortune of being born illegitimate. She appeals the trial court's grant of summary judgment which directed that the entire proceeds be paid to her half sister who was born legitimate.

The facts leading up to this litigation are not complex. Denois Butcher, the insured, held a group life insurance policy issued by The Travelers Insurance Company through his employer, the Penn Central Railroad. The policy provided for $6,000 in death benefits and for an additional $4,000 if the insured suffered death by 'accidental means.' It also contained the following provision, hereinafter referred to as the substitute beneficiary clause, the interpretation of which is the legal storm center of this appeal:

'Payment of any part of the life insurance for which there is no beneficiary designated by the employee or surviving at the death of the employee shall be made to the employee's wife or husband if living at the death of the employee; if not living, to the employee's surviving children; if none survives, to the executors or administrators of the employee.' Article X, Section 2. (Emphasis added.)

On October 24, 1968, while covered by this policy, the insured met his untimely demise as a result of gunshot wounds inflicted during an altercation with another individual. Because the insured had not specifically named any beneficiaries, Article X, Section 2 of the policy, quoted above, became determinative of who was entitled to the proceeds. Perhaps compliance with this provision would not have created any problems if it were not for the unsettled state of the insured's domestic affairs.

Seven years prior to his death, the insured fathered two children, one legitimate and the other illegitimate. The first child, Yvette, was born on May 30, 1961, as a result of the insured's marriage to Carrie Butcher, the plaintiff-appellee, 1 who brought this action on behalf of her daughter. In July 1961, Rita Bell Pollard, the defendant-appellant, filed a paternity action against the insured, and the following October she gave birth to the second child, Monique. Three weeks after the birth of this illegitimate child, the insured was adjudged her reputed father in the Juvenile Court of Cuyahoga County. 2

In an effort to secure all the insurance benefits for Yvette, the legitimate daughter, her mother, Carrie Butcher, as a guardian ad litem, filed a petition for money only and an action for declaratory relief. Named as defendants were the illegitimate daughter Monique Pollard, her mother and guardian Rita Bell Pollard, The Travelers Insurance Company and The Travelers Indemnity Company. The monetary action prayed for a judgment of $10,000, reflecting $6,000 in basic, death benefits and $4,000 in accidental death benefits. The declaratory action prayed for a judgment declaring that Yvette was the only legitimate daughter of the insured and was thus the only person entitled to the insurance proceeds. The defendant Rita Bell Pollard counterclaimed for $5,000, which represented her illegitimate daughter's purported half interest in the maximum payable benefits. In their consolidated answer, Travelers Insurance and Travelers Indemnity admitted that $6,000 was owing, but denied that the insured had died by accidental means or that the $4,000 accidental death benefits were payable. Simultaneously, the insurer deposited $6,000 with the Clerk of Courts, subject to the court's determination of the beneficiaries.

Motions for summary judgment were filed by all the parties. Based upon the pleadings and affidavits, the trial court found that Yvette Butcher was the insured's only legitimate daughter and held that she was the sole beneficiary to the insurance. Accordingly, the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment was granted to the extent of the $6,000 held by the Clerk of Courts. 3 The defendant Rita Bell Pollard, on behalf of her daughter Monique, appeals this adverse judgment. We reverse.

This case requires that we determine the meaning of the word 'children' as it appears in the substitute beneficiary clause of a group life insurance policy. We are well aware that we are not writing upon a clean slate. At least three courts have previously considered this precise issue, with only one having ruled in favor of the illegitimate child. The other two courts rejected the illegitimates' claims, but these cases hardly provide the needed ballast to sustain any assertion that the weight of authority requires us to follow in its stead. Reason and justice outweigh any consideration that may appropriately be given to the precedential boxscore. Before examining these decisions, it is useful to make some preliminary observations about the nature and operation of beneficiary clauses.

The designation of a group life insurance beneficiary is solely a decision of the insured 4 and normally he will name a specific individual or a class of individuals. Whenever a dispute develops over the connotation of the named beneficiary, the court's responsibility is to ascertain and give effect to his intentions. 5 And, although intention is an intangible commodity, it may nevertheless be gathered indirectly through the insured's chosen words and any relevant circumstances prior to and contemporaneous with his decision. 6 But the instant case does not lend itself to this mode of inquiry, for the insured did not specifically designate any beneficiaries. Thus, a factual inquiry into the circumstances surrounding this insurance contract would be inconclusive. What we do face is a generic term, whose legal usage has traditionally contemplated only legitimate children, incorporated into a substitute beneficiary clause which bears no mark of the insured's actual intent.

In analyzing these two elements of this insurance contract more closely we note that the technical legal usage of the term 'children' has a history which may be traced back to the primordial beginnings of the common law. This history is significant, for it places in perspective the marked tendency of English and American courts to construe both instruments conveying property and various legislative enactments to the detriment of illegitimates. The core concept which inspired many of the laws affecting an illegitimate's life was that he was filius nullius-a child of no one. This idea owes its existence largely to the efforts of the early Christian Church to enforce its religious precepts on sexual morality and to the policy, embraced by both religious and secular authorities, of protecting the monogamous marriage and the family as social institutions against the corrosive effects of extramarital relations. 7 But, as one commentator has astutely observed, an equally potent influence was the self-centered impulses of the fee holders to insulate their lands and their families from the economic burdens and social stigma of bastard children. 8 It has also been suggested that the survival of the feudal systetm of early England depended in part upon the legal discrimination between legitimate and illegitimate offspring. 9 The lawmakers of that time may well have thought that the stable transfer of tenures and the predictable, uninterrupted rendering of feudal services would be endangered if any long lost products of past indiscretions were allowed to make good their familial claims to land. In keeping with these policies and prejudices there evolved the two notorious rules that a bastard, being an heir of no one, could not inherit from his parents by intestate succession 10 and that a father was not under any obligation to maintain and support his children, unless required by statute. 11 These rules, of course, have been ameliorated to a large extent by legislation.

Stemming from the first rule was a third one which has a more direct bearing on the issue before us. To aid the courts in the interpretation and construction of wills, it has been stated as follows: Where a testator uses the term 'children' he is presumed to use it in its legal sense, meaning legitimate children, unless the contents of the will indicate a contrary intention. 12 Courts have justified this rule on the somewhat speculative assumption that a testator would more than likely have intended to devise and bequeath his property to only his legal heirs. But this rule has been employed to discern the probable intentions of not only individuals, but also legislatures. When called upon to define the scope of the word 'children,' as used in a statute, courts have been strongly inclined to apply the above presumption as a rule of construction. 13 Unsurprisingly, it has determined the construction of many of the descent and distribution statutes 14 and several of the early support laws which did not specifically refer to illegitimates. 15

In examining the substitute beneficiary clause, we find that it is a rather ubiquitous creature. It serves as a succeeding directive where the insured has simply failed to exercise his contractual right to name a beneficiary, or where the named beneficiary predeceases the insured; it has even been invoked where the named beneficiary survives the insured, but is statutorily barred from receiving the proceeds. 16 In these instances, if it were not for the back-up...

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