This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. ß 480A.08, subd. 3 (1998).
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Christopher K. Johnson, individually,
and on behalf of Christopher K. Johnson
and Brian T. Johnson, doing business as C.B. Repair,
Suk Johnson, as Personal Representative
on behalf of the Estate of Brian T. Johnson
and on behalf of Christopher K. Johnson and
Suk Johnson, as Personal Representative on behalf
of the Estate of Brian T. Johnson,
doing business as C.B. Repair,
Roseau County District Court
File No. C6980636
Jeffrey W. Hane, Brink, Sobolik, Severson, Malm & Albrecht, P.A., PO Box 790, Hallock, MN 56728 (for respondent)
Alan Fish, Alan B. Fish, P.A., 109 Second Street NE, Roseau, MN 56751 (for appellant)
††††††††††† Considered and decided by Davies, Presiding Judge, Peterson, Judge, and Halbrooks, Judge.
††††††††††† Appellant appeals from the district courtís partial summary judgment awarding excess life-insurance proceeds to respondent, who was the named contingent beneficiary on the policy.† Because we agree with the district court that there are no genuine issues of material fact and that respondent is entitled to the excess proceeds as a matter of law, we affirm.
††††††††††† Respondent Christopher Johnson and his brother Brian Johnson were partners doing business as C.B. Repair.† The partnership incurred a debt of approximately $90,000.† Citizens State Bank of Roseau (the bank) held the note that secured the debt.† Respondent and his brother purchased identical life-insurance policies to cover the indebtedness.† Both policies provided a benefit of $100,000 in the case of death within the policy period.† Both policies named the bank as the primary beneficiary, and each brother named the other as the contingent beneficiary.† The partnership initially paid the premiums on the policies.
††††††††††† In September 1998, respondent filed a summons and complaint seeking a judicial dissolution of the partnership.† Shortly thereafter, Brian Johnson filed a counterclaim for dissolution of the partnership.† The partnership ceased paying the premiums for the life-insurance policies and respondent and Brian Johnson individually paid the premiums on the policies on their own lives for the month of December 1998.† Brian Johnson died in a car accident in December 1998.†
††††††††††† Following Brian Johnsonís death, the insurance company paid his policyís value of $101,438.30 to the bank on April 5, 1999.† At that time, the partnership owed the bank $90,879.79.† The bank applied the proceeds of the life-insurance policy to the debt, and voluntarily turned over the remaining $10,558.51 to the partnershipís court-appointed receiver.† The receiver decided that the money should be held in trust until the court determined to whom it belonged.†
††††††††††† Respondent filed a motion for partial summary judgment in connection with the partnership-dissolution proceedings seeking release of the excess insurance proceeds to him.† He argued before the district court that, as the contingent beneficiary named in the life-insurance policy, he was entitled to the excess proceeds.† Appellant, Brian Johnsonís estate, argued that respondent was not entitled to the life-insurance proceeds unless the primary beneficiary, the bank, was unable to take.† Because the bank did receive the proceeds, appellant contends that respondent was divested of the right to receive any of the proceeds.† The district court agreed with respondent and granted his motion for partial summary judgment.†
D E C I S I O N
1.†††††††† Standard of review
††††††††††† Brian Johnsonís estate appeals from the entry of judgment granting respondentís motion for partial summary judgment.†
On an appeal from summary judgment, we ask two questions:† (1) whether there are any genuine issues of material fact and (2) whether the lower courts erred in their application of the law.
State by Cooper v. French, 460 N.W.2d 2, 4 (Minn. 1990) (citation omitted).† This case involves the interpretation of an insurance contract.† Construction of an insurance policy involves a question of law.† Iowa Kemper Ins. Co. v. Stone, 269 N.W.2d 885, 886-87 (Minn. 1978).† If there is no dispute of material fact, appellate courts independently review the district courtís interpretation of the insurance contract.† National City Bank v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co., 447 N.W.2d 171, 175 (Minn. 1989).
2.†††††††† Award of excess proceeds to respondent
††††††††††† Appellant contends that a genuine issue of fact exists regarding Brian Johnsonís intent in naming his brother as the policyís contingent beneficiary.† Appellant contends that Brian Johnson intended for any excess proceeds to become (1) partnership property or (2) an asset of his estate.† Respondent contends that the fact that he was listed as the contingent beneficiary eliminates any factual ambiguity regarding who is entitled to receive the excess proceeds.
††††††††††† Appellantís contention that the excess proceeds should be deemed partnership property lacks merit.† The life-insurance policy lists respondent, in his individual capacity, as the contingent beneficiary.† There is no evidence in the record regarding any limitation on how respondent was to use any proceeds he received as the contingent beneficiary.† Specifically, Brian Johnson did not denote respondent as a contingent beneficiary in respondentís capacity as a partner in the brothersí business, nor did Brian Johnson name the partnership as the contingent beneficiary.† There is simply no evidence to support appellantís contention that Brian Johnson intended any excess proceeds to become partnership property.
Also, appellant does not have a valid claim to receipt of the excess proceeds.† Presumably, Brian Johnsonís estate would be entitled to the proceeds if it were a named beneficiary or if there were no other beneficiary entitled to the proceeds.† But Brian Johnson did not list his estate or his wife as beneficiaries under the policy, and the named beneficiaries, i.e., the bank and respondent, were able and willing to accept the proceeds.†
Furthermore, there is no evidence that Brian Johnson intended to change the beneficiaries of his insurance policy or eliminate his brother as the contingent beneficiary.† It appears that there was some animosity between the brothers at the time of Brian Johnsonís death, but there are no letters or other evidence demonstrating an intent to change the beneficiary designations.†
Courts have previously enforced intended changes in beneficiaries despite an insuredís failure to comply with the specific requirements of the policy.† But for this to occur, the evidence of intent must be clear and unambiguous.†
We hold that where an insured has clearly and unambiguously demonstrated an intent to change the beneficiary on a life insurance policy, this intent should be given effect unless prejudice to the insurer would result.† If there exists any confusion as to the insuredís intent or conflicting expressions of intent, then the named beneficiary should be entitled to the proceeds.
Lemke v. Schwarz, 286 N.W.2d 693, 696 (Minn. 1979).† To the extent that there is any evidence of Brian Johnsonís intent to change the beneficiaries under his life-insurance policy, it is not clear or unambiguous.
††††††††††† Brian Johnson never listed his estate, his wife, or the partnership as a beneficiary under the insurance policy.† In the cases where the court has found evidence of intent, the insured has typically taken a substantial step toward effectuating the change.† See, e.g., Lemke, 286 N.W.2d at 695-96 (insured wrote a letter to the intended beneficiaries that evidenced his intent that they receive the insurance proceeds rather than the named beneficiary); Pabst v. Hesse, 286 Minn. 33, 36, 173 N.W.2d 925, 927 (1970) (insured, an enlisted member of the Navy stationed abroad, repeatedly sought the assistance of others in changing his beneficiary and signed and mailed a change-in-beneficiary form to the intended beneficiary); Metropolitan Life Ins. Co v. Belland, 583 N.W.2d 592, 593 (Minn. App. 1998) (insured delivered a signed change-in-beneficiary form to his insurance agent).† In the instant case, there apparently were hard feelings between the brothers at the time of Brian Johnsonís death, but without more, there does not appear to be any way that the district court could have reached a different result.† See Gwin v. Gappa, 394 N.W.2d 530, 534 (Minn. App. 1986) (affirming award of life insurance proceeds to named beneficiary despite some evidence that insured intended to change beneficiaries because insured ďdid not clearly demonstrate whom he intended to designate as beneficiaryĒ).
††††††††††† Therefore, the only question is whether respondent, as the named contingent beneficiary, is entitled to the excess proceeds not retained by the bank.† This is the most appropriate interpretation of the contract.† The term contingent beneficiary is not defined by the contract.† But a contingent beneficiary is generally ď[t]he person designated in a life-insurance policy to receive the proceeds if the primary beneficiary is unable to do so.Ē† Blackís Law Dictionary 149 (7th ed. 1999).† In this case, the bank was listed as the primary beneficiary and was able to receive the majority of the proceeds.† But the bank was unable or unwilling to retain the excess funds at issue in this case.† Therefore, because the primary beneficiary did not take all of the proceeds, the contingent beneficiary becomes entitled to the excess.† See Minn. Stat. ß 61A.12, subd. 1 (1998) (providing that ď[w]hen any insurance is effected in favor of another, the beneficiary shall be entitled to its proceeds against the creditors and representatives of the person effecting the sameĒ).†
††††††††††† There are no material facts in dispute and the district court properly applied the law.† Although the policy does not define the term contingent beneficiary or the time when a contingent beneficiary would be entitled to receive proceeds from the policy, the district court correctly interpreted the policy.† A contingent beneficiary is entitled to receive proceeds from the policy when the primary beneficiary is unwilling or unable to accept them.† In this case, the bank disclaimed a portion of the proceeds and the district court correctly awarded the excess proceeds to respondent.†