“Lex Loci Contractus” Applies to Change of Power of Attorney & Life Insurance Proceeds
It is axiomatic that where there is life insurance there are relatives. In Metropolitan Life Insurance Company v. Jayson Tucker, Karen Tucker, et al., No. 20-11106m United States Court Of Appeals For The Eleventh Circuit (February 12, 2021) children of a General Electric long time employee fought over who was entitled to the proceeds of her ERISA life insurance policy, with siblings disputing who was entitled to the proceeds.
The trial court ruled in favor of Shayne Tucker and denied the claim of his brother, Jayson Tucker. Jayson appealed the decision in an interpleader action filed by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1335. The dispute between Jayson and Shayne concerned the proper beneficiary of the life insurance policy of their mother, Marjorie Tucker.
Jayson was named the sole beneficiary of the life insurance policy in 1979, but in February of 2014, Shayne was named the sole beneficiary pursuant to a power of attorney (“POA”) Ms. Tucker executed the month before. On appeal, Mr. Tucker, proceeding pro se, challenged his mother’s contractual capacity at the time she executed the 2014 POA, arguing that her 2013 dementia diagnosis precluded her from having the requisite capacity to render the POA valid. Shayne did not file an answer brief. After review, we affirm.
Ms. Tucker was an employee of General Electric and had life insurance coverage under a policy issued by MetLife, pursuant to an ERISA benefits plan. In January 2014, Ms. Tucker executed a durable POA that appointed Karen Tucker (Ms. Tucker’s daughter and the sister of Jayson and Shayne) as her attorney-in-fact.
In February 2014, a beneficiary designation change was submitted to MetLife that named Shayne as the sole beneficiary of Ms. Tucker’s benefits—including the life insurance policy—under the ERISA the plan. In June 2014, another beneficiary designation change was submitted to MetLife. This one named Karen the sole beneficiary. Ms. Tucker died in May of 2017, and in July of 2017, Karen and Shayne each made adverse claims to the benefits. MetLife then filed an interpleader suit.
Jayson submitted a declaration under penalty of perjury stating that Ms. Tucker was diagnosed with dementia Alzheimer’s type in 2013. He included a letter from a doctor reflecting that diagnosis, and argued that Karen obtained the 2014 POA at a time when Ms. Tucker did not have the capacity to contract.
Generally speaking, whether one has mental capacity to enter into a contract is a question of fact. The Eleventh Circuit refuses to set aside a district court’s findings of fact unless they are clearly erroneous. A finding of fact is “clearly erroneous” when the record lacks substantial evidence to support it.
Georgia adheres to the doctrine of lex loci contractus, which holds that contracts are to be governed as to their nature, validity and interpretation by the law of the place where they were made. Georgia law ordinarily honors choice-of-law provisions. A choice-of-law provision will not be upheld if the law is contrary to Georgia public policy, or the chosen jurisdiction has no substantial relationship to the parties or the transaction.
In 2014, a properly executed POA under Georgia law required two adult witnesses — at least one of whom was not a blood relative or spouse of the signer — to watch the signatory sign his or her name on the document. The witnesses had to sign the POA as well. The POA did not need to be notarized unless it authorized real property transactions.
Georgia law presumes that every individual is of sound mind and discretion but the presumption may be rebutted. The burden is on the party attacking a contract to show the incompetency of the signer at the time of the execution.
The district court’s implicit finding that Georgia law applies to this case is correct because the POA was executed in Georgia and contained a choice-of-law provision indicating that Georgia law governed.
After Karen filed a notice withdrawing any claim to the benefits, the district court ordered Shayne and Jayson to submit any additional evidence they wanted it to consider in determining the proper beneficiary. When neither party submitted any further evidence or argument, the court entered judgment based on the record before it. The court noted that, other than Jayson’s unsupported statement, nothing in the record indicated that Ms. Tucker lacked the mental competence needed to execute the 2014 POA.
The district court found that under the terms of the POA, Karen could not validly amend the ERISA plan to make herself the beneficiary—thus, her purported June 2014 amendment was invalid. Because the POA was validly executed, however, Karen did have the authority to change the beneficiary to Shayne and she did so in the February 2014 amendment. The court found that, given any lack of evidence to the contrary, Ms. Tucker had the capacity to sign the 2014 POA, and that POA authorized Karen to make Shayne the beneficiary.
The district court’s finding regarding Ms. Tucker’s contractual capacity is not clearly erroneous because nothing in the record conclusively reflects her lack of mental capacity at the time she executed the 2014 POA. The letters from Ms. Tucker’s doctors, dated at the time of her diagnosis of mild senile dementia in 2013, do not necessarily indicate her mental state in January of 2014.
Given Georgia’s presumption of competence and Jayson’s failure to present any additional evidence regarding Ms. Tucker’s incapacity when the POA was executed in 2014, there was no clear error. The judgment of the district court in favor of Shayne Tucker was affirmed.
Proving that insurance is a contract that must be interpreted based upon the wording of the contract, once the court determined that the POA was validly executed the last named beneficiary was the only person who was entitled to the benefits of the life insurance policy. The case also teaches that to win an interpleader action it is necessary to bring evidence to the court. Since Jayson had none that were sufficient to support his argument that mother was not sufficiently capable to agree to the POA, his claim failed.
© 2021 – Barry Zalma
Barry Zalma, Esq., CFE, now limits his practice to service as an insurance consultant specializing in insurance coverage, insurance claims handling, insurance bad faith and insurance fraud almost equally for insurers and policyholders. He also serves as an arbitrator or mediator for insurance related disputes. He practiced law in California for more than 44 years as an insurance coverage and claims handling lawyer and more than 52 years in the insurance business. He is available at http://www.zalma.com and email@example.com.
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