Undue Influence In Changing Life Insurance Beneficiary Can Be Difficult to Prove

The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has previously discussed the naming of a beneficiary on a life insurance policy or other asset such as a pension or retirement account. Upon a person’s death, these assets are paid directly to the named beneficiary (assuming the beneficiary is surviving) and are not part of the probate or intestate administration.

It is of utmost importance that the beneficiary designation clause be completed properly and clearly so that the intended beneficiary can receive the asset proceeds following a death. These designations should be well thought out as part of an overall estate plan.

Unfortunately, controversy and Court litigation often arises when beneficiary selections are changed while a person is elderly, or experiencing medical problems or when the change occurs shortly before death. Such changes are particularly dramatic when the new beneficiary is a person who has not been involved in the decedent’s life until recently such as a new friend, spouse or health aide. The initial reaction to such change, particularly from the now disinherited beneficiary – such as a child, long-time friend or other seemingly natural beneficiary selection – is that the change could only be the result of some kind of undue influence perpetrated upon the decedent at a time when he or she was vulnerable, weakened due to illness or old age or incapacitated.

However, despite the ready appearance of wrongdoing, actually demonstrating that the decedent did not intend the change and that the new designation should be voided is not an easy task. Such was the situation in a recent case entitled Metropolitan Life Insurance v. Felecia Bradway, decided in the Federal District Court, Southern District of New York, 10 Civ. 0254. As reported in the New York Law Journal by Mark Hamblett on February 28, 2011, the decedent, Bradway, had designated his daughter as the beneficiary of a $300,000 life insurance policy in 1998. However, in May, 2008 Bradway changed the beneficiary designation to a co-worker whom he married later that year. Bradway had been taking a narcotic pain medication and was diagnosed with liver cancer shortly before his wedding. Bradway then died in March 2009.

The disinherited daughter claimed that the new spouse, “who was 30 years younger than Mr. Bradway, influenced him by proposing marriage while he was ‘terminally ill’ , by attempting to isolate him from his family following his cancer diagnosis and by failing to provide him with proper medical care after the diagnosis.”

As reported in the article, notwithstanding the daughter’s allegations, the Court found that “there was not enough evidence for a ‘reasonable finder of fact’ to show Mr. Bradway’s mind was subverted when he made the May 27, 2008 designation of beneficiary.”

The Bradway case demonstrates that it is important to make clear beneficiary designations as part of an estate plan. Probate, Guardianship, and other Court proceedings provide avenues to attack designations that may seem particularly improper under the circumstances. Such attacks however, require the proper presentation of proof to succeed.

New York Probate Attorney Jules Martin Haas, Esq. has been representing clients in Trusts and Estates matters and Surrogate’s Court proceedings throughout the New York Metropolitan area including, the Bronx, Nassau and Suffolk Counties over the past 30 years. If you or someone you know is involved with or has questions about a New York estate or beneficiary designation, please contact me at (212) 355-2575 or email: jules.haas@verizon.net, for an initial consultation.

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