Correcting Beneficiary Designations
Declarations of beneficiaries of Life Insurance policies are sometimes thought to be “unassailable.” However, where a deceased’s first spouse is unexpectedly the named beneficiary of a life insurance policy owned by the deceased, the second spouse may have recourse to various legal remedies in an attempt to remedy what is argued to be an unjust situation. Inevitably, a Separation Agreement between the deceased and his or her first spouse is central to any such argument.
The recent decision of the Honourable Justice Strathy in Richardson (Estate Trustee of) v. Mew considered such a situation. The case also stands as an excellent summary of the recent jurisprudence that has developed in this area.
In short, the disappointed spouse can seek the remedies of either constructive trust or rectification. Justice Strathy points out that “except in exceptional circumstances” the Insurance Act requirements for the change of a beneficiary designation must be strictly interpreted. His Honour clearly had difficulty with understanding “how the designation of a beneficiary under a life insurance policy could be anything other than a juristic reason for an “enrichment.” Although he did not find this to be a case for the exercise of the court’s jurisdiction to rectify the policy, he left open the possibility that, in the right set of circumstances (i.e. clear evidence of a mistake), the court could properly employ such a remedy.
David M. Smith