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An appellate court in California has ruled that there was “no legal basis” to find an insurance broker liable for failing to advise a beneficiary of a life insurance policy how to protect her interest under the policy.
In 1992, Judy Randle and her then-husband, Alan McConnell, asked Mark Hebson, the owner of the Hebson Insurance Agency, Inc., to obtain a policy insuring McConnell’s life. Hebson did so, obtaining a policy from Farmers New World Life Insurance Company with a $250,000 death benefit that named Randle as the sole beneficiary.
According to Randle, she and McConnell “developed a longstanding relationship with [Mr.] Hebson, who placed and serviced a variety of other policies” for them.
In 2004, Randle and McConnell divorced and entered into a stipulated divorce judgment. The divorce decree gave Randle “[a] beneficial interest of one-quarter (1/4) of” the Farmers policy. McConnell was required to maintain the policy for her benefit “to the extent of her one-quarter beneficial interest,” and was free to name any beneficiaries “as to his remaining 3/4ths interest.” If either party decided to discontinue paying premiums, he or she would “forfeit [her or his] ownership” as to his or her interest in the policy. If McConnell decided to discontinue paying premiums (as he did in 2008), he was required to notify Randle in writing and assign the policy to Randle if she chose to pay the premiums. If Randle chose to accept the three-quarter interest and pay the premiums, then she was “free to name any beneficiaries she chooses.”
Neither Randle nor McConnell provided the Hebson Insurance Agency with a copy of the divorce decree.
In 2006, McConnell submitted a form to Farmers, requesting a change in beneficiary. The form was signed by McConnell on May 4, 2006, and included with it were partial pages of the divorce decree. The requested change added the couple’s three sons, so that Randle and their sons each would be 25% beneficiaries of the policy.
Farmers stamped the request “Update Only” and “Not Registered.” No one ever told the Hebson Insurance Agency or Randle that McConnell had submitted the beneficiary change request to Farmers.
In 2008, Randle began paying all the premiums on the policy through a company of which she was the sole owner. According to Randle, “[a]round this time, I discussed with Mark Hebson and Alice Brooks [the Hebson Insurance Agency’s office manager and a licensed property and casualty broker/agent] the agreement I had with Alan McConnell and that the agreement was stated in the divorce decree.”
In her 2008 discussions, Randle said, she “also told Mark Hebson and Alice Brooks that I would only make the premium payments if I remained the only beneficiary on the [p]olicy.” She said that Hebson advised her “that it was possible to ensure that she would remain the policy beneficiary even if she’s not the listed owner of the policy.” According to Randle, Hebson “advised me that the only action I needed to take to ensure that I remain the 100% beneficiary was to pay the premiums and keep the [p]olicy in force.”
From 2008 until 2014, both Randle and the Hebson Insurance Agency believed that Randle was the sole beneficiary of the policy; the Hebson Insurance Agency confirmed with Farmers every time Randle inquired.
On April 11, 2014, McConnell died. A few days later, Randle informed Farmers of his death, and “was told again that she was the only beneficiary under the [p]olicy.” On April 16, 2014, she submitted a claim for 100% of the policy benefits.
On April 18, 2014, Farmers told Randle for the first time that “there was a dispute that she was the 100% policy beneficiary.” Farmers told Randle that McConnell had submitted a beneficiary change in 2006, to add the couple’s three sons as beneficiaries, “but the request was not accepted or registered, because Farmers requested the full divorce decree and [Mr. McConnell] never sent it.”
After McConnell’s death, his sons provided Farmers with a complete copy of the divorce decree.