Validity of Beneficiary Declarations for Insurance Policies
Beneficiary designations for a life insurance policy can be an important estate planning tool. However, as with any testamentary document or disposition, questions can arise about the insured’s actual intentions after death.
In the recent decision of Sun Life v Nelson Estate et al., 2017 ONSC 4987, the Court was asked to resolve such an ambiguity by considering the validity of an insurance declaration under the deceased’s Will and the validity of a change of beneficiary designation on file with the insurer.
Juanita (the “Deceased”) died in December 2009. The Deceased was entitled to group life insurance coverage with Sun Life in the amount of $148,500.00. Following the Deceased’s death, Sun Life deposited the proceeds of the policy into Court. The Deceased’s two children (the “Respondents”) brought a Motion for a declaration that they were solely entitled to the proceeds.
The Deceased had been married to the respondent, Justin Nelson (“Justin”), since 2006. Following the Deceased’s death, Justin signed an acknowledgment that the Respondents were entitled to the proceeds of the policy. He had made no claim to the proceeds since the Deceased’s death, and his whereabouts were unknown as of the hearing of the Motion.
Beneficiary Declarations Under the Insurance Act
Pursuant to section 190 of the Ontario Insurance Act, an insurance may designate the insured, the insured’s personal representative or a specific beneficiary pursuant to the insurance contract or a declaration, including a declaration under the insured’s Will.
Section 171(1) of the Act sets out the criteria for a valid declaration. The declaration must be made by way of an instrument signed by the insured. The declaration must also be an instrument with respect to which an endorsement is made on the policy, that identifies the contract, or that describes the insurance or insurance fund (or a part thereof).
The Issue in Sun Life v Nelson Estate
In 2007, the Deceased’s employer’s group policy with Sun Life was terminated and transferred to Desjardins Financial Security (“Desjardins”). The Deceased completed an application for enrolment and an irrevocable beneficiary designation in favour of the Respondents. She also advised her financial advisor that she had changed the beneficiary for the policy from Justin to the Respondents.
However, after the Deceased’s death, it was discovered that her coverage had remained with Sun Life instead of being transferred to Desjardins because she was disabled at the time of the transfer. As a result, there were two beneficiary designations in the Deceased’s file.
The Deceased’s Last Will and Testament also included a beneficiary declaration that directed the “proceeds of the insurance policy” to be held in trust for the benefit of the Respondents. The term “insurance policy” was not defined in the Will, and the Deceased was insured under two policies at the time of her death.
Thus, the Court was asked to consider the validity of the declaration under the Will and the validity of the change of beneficiary designation in 2007.
Justice Brown’s Decision
After reviewing the facts, the Honourable Justice Carole Brown concluded that the declaration under the Will was ambiguous and did not refer to a specific insurance policy. Accordingly, the declaration under the Will failed.
However, with respect to the change of beneficiary designation form, the Court was satisfied that the Deceased clearly intended for the Respondents to be the beneficiaries of the policy. The evidence before the Court included the Deceased’s statements to the Respondents, the change of beneficiary designation form and the fact that Justin had signed an acknowledgment that the Respondents were the beneficiaries of the policy.
In the result, the Court held that the change of beneficiary designation form was valid within the meaning of section 171(1), and ordered that the proceeds be paid out to the Respondents equally.
Thank you for reading,
Umair Abdul Qadir