Introduction

When creating a will, a person may rely on a life insurance beneficiary who will be designated to handle their affairs. A person may rely on a life insurance beneficiary if they are unable to read, write, or are in any other way inhibited from handling their affairs themselves. Having a life insurance beneficiary is a great way to protect yourself from issues that you may be incapable of dealing with yourself including undue influence. What is undue influence, when will a court find undue influence, and how does undue influence affect a court’s ruling? These questions are answered in Cobb v. Justice, 954 S.W.2d 162 (Tex. App. 1997).

Facts of the case

T.J. Clark was unable to read or write and relied on the help of a woman named Virginia Cobb to take care of his financial affairs for 20 years. Cobb assisted Clark in executing a will that granted Clark’s daughter all his vehicles and a life estate in his house with the remaining of the estate granted to Cobb. This means that Clark’s daughter would possess the house during her lifetime, and Cobb would take possession of the estate after the death of Clark’s daughter. Clark also made Cobb the beneficiary (person legally designated to receive the benefits from Clark’s financial products) of his three life insurance policies. On June 1, 1995, Clark became very ill and was close to death from lung cancer. His doctor increased his intake of morphine to alleviate some of his pain. This doctor, Dr. Kleinman, testified that morphine can cause a person who is using it and close to dying from cancer to become confused. In his condition, Clark felt nervous around when around large groups of people. His niece, Justice, came to visit him with four other people. Justice had previously pestered Clark repeatedly about the contents of his will.

While visiting Clark, Justice’s sister phoned Cobb saying that Clark wanted to see his will, even though he could not read, and Cobb refused. She told the sister the contents of the will, and the sister called several attorneys to schedule a re-write of Clark’s will. After several futile attempts, a woman came into the room to drop soup off for Clark and told Clark she had a friend who was an attorney. Clark gave the name of the attorney to the group, and the group and Clark met with the attorney that afternoon. The group, including Clark, got into a van to drive to the attorney meeting. The group, however, failed to put Clark’s oxygen tank, which he had been using regularly to help him breathe, in the van. After the meeting, Clark had changed his will to give everything to Justice, and the insurance company changed the beneficiary from Cobb to Justice as well. Although Clark had repeatedly bragged about how good of a job Cobb did at handling his affairs, he said at this meeting that he was displeased with Cobb and wanted to change beneficiaries.

When the group returned home, Clark’s father went to check on him and found that Clark was out of breath. The next day Clark went to the emergency room because he was suffering from severe shortness of breath. He died a few hours later. The next morning, Justice took Clark’s new will to have it offered for probate. Cobb argued that the new will was derived under undue influence. She argues three points to the court that 1) the trial court was wrong in finding there was no evidence to support the jury’s finding that undue influence was exerted over Clark 2) that the court was wrong in disregarding the jury’s findings and granting the JNOV (judgment notwithstanding verdict – meaning the court ruled against what the jury decided), and 3) that the court was wrong in overruling her Motion to Modify, Correct or Reform Judgment which she sought to reinstate the jury’s verdict that undue influence was executed over Clark. The Court here found that all three of Cobb’s points were correct, and they ruled in her favor.

What this case means

Finding of Undue Influence:

Undue influence is found when the free agency of the person is destroyed and a document is produced that expresses the will of the one exerting the influences rather than the person’s true wishes. Undue influence is when someone is pressured into doing something they don’t want to do.

To decide whether undue influence has been found a person must prove:

1) The existence and exertion of an influence

2) That the influence operated to subvert or overthrow the person’s mind when executing the document; and

3) That the person would not have executed the document but for the influence

The first element listed above focuses on the relationships between the person who executed the document, the contestant (the person bringing undue influence allegations to the court), and the party accused of exerting undue influence. To determine whether undue influence has been exerted, the courts will assess the opportunities that exist to exert the influence, the circumstances that surrounded the execution of the document, the existence of any possible fraudulent motives, and whether the person executing the document was frequently under the control of the party accused of exerting undue influence.

The second element listed requires proof that the operation of the influence subverted or overpowered the mind of the person executing the documents. It focuses on the person’s (person executing the documents) mental or physical ability to resist influence from others.

Lastly, the third element requires the circumstances to show that if the person who executed the documents had not been under the influence they were, they would not have made the decisions they did.

Contesting Life Insurance Beneficiary Designation:

Beneficiary designation: The Court found that there was undue influence exerted; however, what is tricky in this case is that the trial court originally ruled against the jury because they found that the jury’s finding of undue influence regarding Clark’s life insurance beneficiary was immaterial. The Court ruled in this way because they believed Cobb lacked standing (was not eligible) to sue Justice as Texas did not recognize the right of a former beneficiary to attack a change of beneficiary done by the insured party based on undue influence. The Court here, however, found that a majority of circuits do recognize this ability of the previous beneficiary to bring charges against the current beneficiary, and found that the finding of undue influence that the jury ruled on was not immaterial.

Conclusion

If someone is unduly influenced by another person, they may sign a document that expresses the will of the influencer rather than their own true wishes. The court ruled that Cobb had standing to sue Justice for undue influence on Clark’s life insurance policy, and that the jury’s finding of undue influence was not immaterial.

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Related Questions

Can the beneficiary of a life insurance policy be contested?

The beneficiary of a life insurance policy can be contested in the event of undue influence. Life insurance beneficiaries are the people or organizations who receive a payout in the event that an insured person dies. This payout is known as a death benefit and can be used to provide inheritance to loved ones, fund charities or pay off funeral costs. According to The American Council of Life Insurers (ACLI), “contesting a will is less common than contesting the beneficiary designation on a life insurance policy”. Two persons are said to be in undue influence of the deceased if he was induced to make a will or change one already made by threats, duress, fraud, persuasion, intoxication or over-persuasion, misrepresentation of facts or want of understanding.

Does a will override life insurance beneficiaries?

A recent case highlights the issue of undue influence and life insurance beneficiary designations. When someone dies, the beneficiary of their life insurance policy should receive the initial payment. However, there are situations when a specific beneficiary should not receive that money. Example: A mother may want to designate her daughter’s husband as the primary beneficiary. However, if her daughter is married under undue influence (i.e., a coerced marriage) that designation could result in the life insurance proceeds going to a person who does not qualify as an heir of the estate of the deceased. Evidence–and it must be sufficient evidence–is required to prove such assertions.

Can spousal rights override life insurance beneficiary designations?

There is no short answer to this question. It all depends on the type of the life insurance policy, the state where it was issued, the state where the couple lived, and the way the premiums were paid. A life insurance policy is a contract between a policyholder and the insurance company. The policyholder is the “insured” and the company is the “insurer.” The policyholder enjoys the comfort of knowing that, upon the insured’s death, the insurance company will pay out a sum of money to an individual on his or her behalf.

Who can change the beneficiary on a life insurance policy?

If you have a revocable life insurance policy, then you can change the beneficiary at any time. If you want to change it, simply notify your insurer in writing or via your broker. If it’s irrevocable, you cannot change the beneficiary without the owner’s consent.

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