Articles Posted in Estate Planning

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In 1987, Joseph Bagley purchased a cancer and dread-disease policy through his friend and insurance agent, Jackie McPhail. The policy was issued by American Heritage Life Insurance Company. McPhail worked as an independent insurance broker, and she was a registered agent with American Heritage at the time the policy was written. The policy indicated that Bagley purchased coverage concerning cancer and dread disease, a home-recovery rider, and a hospital intensive-care rider. Bagley also had an option to purchase life insurance; however, McPhail testified that Bagley did not purchase life insurance under this policy because he had purchased a separate life-insurance policy. In 2008, Bagley was diagnosed with cancer. Bagley contacted McPhail to file a claim under the policy and to "change the beneficiary" of the policy from his estate to Michael and Betty Strait. McPhail testified that she had ceased writing policies for American Heritage; however, she still retained the authority to service Bagley's policy, and she acquired his written consent to receive information regarding his policy from the insurance company. While Bagley was in the hospital, McPhail presented an American Heritage change-of-beneficiary form, which Bagley ultimately signed. The signature was witnessed by Bagley's physician, a nurse, and McPhail. Bagley orally communicated that he wished for the beneficiary to be changed from his estate to the Straits. At the time that Bagley signed the form, the Straits had yet to be listed as beneficiaries on the form. McPhail met with the Straits after the form was signed to confirm their correct legal names to be placed on the change-of-beneficiary form at a later time. McPhail provided that she did not fully complete the form because she was attempting to contact American Heritage to confirm the correct procedure for completing the process; however, American Heritage's office was closed because of Hurricane Fay, and McPhail never succeeded in speaking with American Heritage regarding the matter. Bagley's physician, who witnessed Bagley signing the form, later communicated to Betty Strait that his attorney advised that the form could not be used because the Straits' names were not listed on the form prior to Bagley's signature. Betty Strait relayed this to McPhail, who then attempted to contact American Heritage's legal department. McPhail called the company on multiple occasions, but she never received a return phone call. Soon thereafter, Bagley passed away, and the form was never completed. The estate was probated and the Straits did not contest the passage of the policy proceeds to the estate at the time that the estate was being settled. The executor of Bagley's will, William Kinstley, petitioned for the approval of the estate's final accounting, which included the policy proceeds. The Straits initiated legal action against McPhail and American Heritage in Hinds County Circuit Court, arguing that Bagley intended for them to receive the proceeds from the cancer policy. The Straits alleged breach of contract, tortious breach of contract, negligence and gross negligence, breach of fiduciary duties and the duty of good faith and fair dealing, bad-faith refusal to pay benefits and to promptly and adequately investigate the claim, misrepresentation and/or failure to procure, promissory and/or equitable estoppel, and they sought a claim for declaratory relief. McPhail filed a motion to dismiss, which was granted by the circuit court. The circuit court found that the issue had been previously litigated and resolved in chancery court, and that no appeal had been taken from the chancery court judgment. Likewise, the circuit court granted American Heritage's motion for summary judgment, finding that there were no genuine issues of material fact to be resolved. The Court of Appeals reversed the judgment and remanded the case, finding that genuine issues of material fact did exist and that res judicata and collateral estoppel did not bar the Straits' claims. Because the Straits failed to raise any issues upon which relief may be granted, the circuit court's grant of McPhail's motion to dismiss was proper. However, the circuit court erred in granting the motion to dismiss based on res judicata and collateral estoppel. Furthermore, the circuit court properly granted American Heritage's motion for summary judgment: the Straits were never eligible to be third-party beneficiaries under the policy, and they have failed to show any equitable entitlement to reimbursement. For those reasons, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals and reinstated the circuit court's judgment. View "Strait v. McPhail " on Justia Law

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This action stems from a dispute between plaintiff James Robert Malloy and Swain R. Thompson, regarding assets of Robert L. Chamblee (Decedent). The complaint alleged that Thompson, with the assistance of Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., acted to disrupt Decedent's estate plan and divert Decedent's assets from Malloy to Thompson. Malloy characterized his claims against Merrill Lynch as: (1) intentional interference with inheritance; (2) aiding and abetting intentional interference with inheritance; (3) and civil conspiracy. Merrill Lynch moved to dismiss and compel arbitration arguing that its only connection to this dispute was through its contractual duties under the client relationship agreements (CRAs) entered into between Decedent and Merrill Lynch, which contained mandatory arbitration clauses. Merrill Lynch argued that although Malloy was a non-signatory to the agreements, any duty, if any, owed by Merrill Lynch to Malloy derives from the CRAs, and therefore, he is bound by the arbitration clauses. The circuit court denied the motion and found that while non-signatories may be bound to an arbitration agreement under common law principles of contract and agency law, none of those principles applied in this case, and therefore, there was no basis to compel Malloy to arbitrate. Merrill Lynch appealed. The Supreme Court affirmed the circuit court's denial of Merrill Lynch's motion to dismiss and compel arbitration. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed the circuit court's decision. View "Malloy v. Thompson" on Justia Law

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Delores Williams, the personal representative of the Estate of Edward Murry, and Matthew Whitaker, Jr., the personal representative of the Estate of Annie Mae Murry (PRs), brought a declaratory judgment action to determine whether a GEICO motor vehicle insurance policy issued to the Murrys provided $15,000 or $100,000 in liability proceeds for bodily injury for an accident in which both of the Murrys were killed. The circuit court concluded coverage was limited to the statutory minimum of $15,000 based on a family step-down provision in the policy that reduced coverage for bodily injury to family members from the stated policy coverage of $100,000 to the statutory minimum amount mandated by South Carolina law during the policy period. The PRs appealed, contending the step-down provision was ambiguous and/or violative of public policy. The Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part. The Court agreed with the circuit court that GEICO's policy is not ambiguous, but concluded the family step-down provision, which reduced the coverage under the liability policy from the stated policy amount to the statutory minimum, was violative of public policy and was, therefore, void. "The provision not only conflicte[d] with the mandates set forth in section 38-77-142, but its enforcement would be injurious to the public welfare." View "Williams v. GEICO" on Justia Law

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After Harold Forest Snow died, Linda Moulton, as personal representative, filed a civil action against Susan Snow, alleging that one of the transfers identified in Harold’s codicil was an improvident transfer and a product of undue influence. During discovery, the parties’ attorneys announced that they had settled the case. Neither side, however, would agree to sign the other’s proposed settlement documents. Linda subsequently filed a motion to enforce the settlement agreement. The probate court granted Linda’s motion to enforce, finding that the record contained an “unequivocal stipulation by the parties’ attorneys that the matter was settled” and that the material terms of the agreement were clearly defined in the transcript. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding (1) there was ample evidence that the parties intended to enter into an enforceable settlement agreement and that the terms placed on the record reflected all of the material terms of the contract; and (2) the probate court did not abuse its discretion in granting the motion to enforce the settlement agreement without holding a trial or an evidentiary hearing.View "In re Estate of Snow" on Justia Law

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Daisy Monzo gifted a condominium that she owned to an irrevocable trust for the benefit of her daughter, Charron Monzo. Daisy subsequently signed another deed transferring the condo back into her own name. Charron filed a petition seeking an order requiring Daisy to transfer the condo back to the trust. The district court granted partial summary judgment for Daisy, concluding that Daisy’s execution of the deed transferring title to the condo into the trust was based on unilateral mistakes. Charron then filed this original writ petition challenging the district court’s partial summary judgment order. The Supreme Court granted the petition, holding (1) a donor may obtain relief from an erroneous gift if she proves by clear and convincing evidence that her intent was mistaken and not in accord with the donative transfer; (2) remedies available to correct such mistakes depend on the nature of the unilateral mistake in question; and (3) because it was uncertain what Daisy’s donative intent was at the time of the donative transfer, genuine issues of fact remained as to whether unilateral mistakes affected Daisy’s execution of the deed transferring the condo into the trust, and therefore, partial summary judgment was improper.View "In re Irrevocable Trust Agreement of 1979" on Justia Law