This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1998).






Debra K. Cich,



Bruce Rieck, as Domiciliary Foreign Personal

Representative of the Estate of Brian K. Rieck,





Diane L. Rieck,



Principal Mutual Life Insurance Company,



Filed August 8, 2000


Parker, Judge*


St. Louis County District Court

File No. C699600513



Robert H. Magie III, Forest Hutchinson and Associates, 501 Lake Avenue South, Suite 400, Duluth, MN 55802 (for appellant)


Timothy N. Downs, MacDonald & Downs, 306 West Superior Street, Suite 200, Duluth, MN 55802-1973 (for respondent)


            Considered and decided by Halbrooks, Presiding Judge, Peterson, Judge, and Parker, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N


After decedent died suddenly, a dispute arose over the proceeds of one of his three life insurance policies.  The designated beneficiary was respondent Diane L. Rieck, who had been divorced from decedent for nine years.  Decedent’s fiancé, appellant Debra K. Cich, beneficiary on one of the three policies, sued, arguing that the failure to change the beneficiary was a mistake resulting in unjust enrichment.  The insurer deposited the policy proceeds with the court and was dismissed from the action.  The district court determined that respondent was the designated and lawful beneficiary, concluding that appellant failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that this would result in unjust enrichment or that a mistake occurred.  Appellant contends the district court clearly abused discretion by failing to impose an equitable constructive trust on the insurance proceeds.  We affirm.


            A constructive trust is an equitable remedy designed to prevent unjust enrichment.  Knox v. Knox, 222 Minn. 477, 481, 25 N.W.2d 225, 228 (1946).  We have defined unjust enrichment as the knowing receipt and unjust retention of something of value to which one is not entitled.  Southtown Plumbing, Inc. v. Har-Ned Lumber Co., 493 N.W.2d 137, 140 (Minn. App. 1992).  There is no specific formula to determine when to impose a constructive trust.  Head v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 449 N.W.2d 449, 455 (Minn. App. 1989), review denied (Minn. Feb. 21, 1990).  A court, however, may impose a constructive trust when “there is clear and convincing evidence that such imposition is justified to prevent unjust enrichment.”  Wilson v. Skogerboe, 379 N.W.2d 696, 698-99 (Minn. App. 1986) (citation omitted).

            Appellant argues that respondent has been unjustly enriched because decedent never intended for respondent, having already received a fair and equitable portion of the marital estate from the divorce proceedings, to remain the named beneficiary on a work-related life insurance policy associated with a long-term disability plan.  She argues that decedent intended to change the beneficiary designation and that he failed to do so purely by mistake.

            Minnesota uses a two-part test to determine whether a beneficiary designation has effectively been changed:

(1) whether there was intent to change the beneficiary by the insured; and (2) whether the insured acted affirmatively or otherwise did substantially all possible to show intention whether or not she complied with policy change of beneficiary provisions.


Larsen v. Northwestern Nat’l Life Ins. Co., 463 N.W.2d 777, 780 (Minn. App. 1990) (citation omitted), review denied (Minn. Feb. 6, 1991).  If there is any confusion regarding an insured’s intent or conflicting expressions of intent, then the named beneficiary should receive the insurance proceeds.  Id.  A marriage dissolution does not, moreover, affect the right of a named beneficiary because the designation stems from the insurance policy terms rather than the status of the marriage.  Id. at 779.

Minnesota courts have imposed a constructive trust where there was a clear and unambiguous intent to change a beneficiary designation.  See, e.g., Brown v. Agin, 260 Minn. 104, 109 N.W.2d 147 (1961) (constructive trust imposed where decedent specifically instructed attorney and daughter to change life insurance beneficiary designation, but died before divorce was final and before change-of-beneficiary form was completed); Larsen, 463 N.W.2d at 780-81 (constructive trust imposed despite decedent’s failure to change beneficiary designation where divorce stipulation clearly intended to divest former husband as designated beneficiary after divorce).

This court has not, however, imposed a constructive trust where cohabiting, engaged individuals separately owned personal and financial assets and where there was no evidence of an express or implied agreement to purchase property together.  Moore v. Sordahl, 389 N.W.2d 748, 750-51 (Minn. App. 1986).  Significantly, in Moore, the beneficiary designation on the decedent’s life insurance policies remained unchanged and named only his former wife and children.  Id. at 751.

In this case, the evidence on decedent’s intent is equivocal.  One could, from the evidence, draw inferences that support each party’s arguments. 

Respondent and decedent were married for 17 years.  Their stipulated divorce decree in 1989 awarded to each of them their own financial items and decedent voluntarily paid temporary spousal maintenance for two years.  The decree made no reference to any life insurance policies and respondent was unaware that she had been designated since 1983 as beneficiary on the policy in dispute.  Decedent’s sister testified that he did not have bitter feelings toward respondent and that he felt obligated to pay the temporary spousal maintenance, despite appellant’s objections. 

Although decedent lived with appellant from 1990 until his death, he kept a room at and occasionally stayed at his mother’s home.  At no time did they own any personal or real property together.  Their bank accounts were separate and individual, and they did not have any joint debts.  When decedent took out a loan, he had his mother cosign rather than appellant.  He also received mail on financial matters at his mother’s home.  Decedent and appellant did not enter into any contract regarding their individual property or finances, or regarding designating each other as beneficiaries of life insurance policies or 401(k) plans.  Decedent, moreover, kept his sister, Pamela Rieck, as the designated beneficiary on a Lutheran Brotherhood life insurance policy.[1]  From these facts, we could infer that decedent intended to keep respondent as the designated beneficiary on the disputed policy.

On the other hand, decedent specifically changed the beneficiary designation to appellant on one other work-related life insurance policy associated with a medical plan and on his 401(k) retirement plan benefits.[2]  The medical plan and the 401(k) plan required decedent to prepare new beneficiary designation forms each time his employer changed third-party plan administrators.  The policy in dispute never changed plan administrators and therefore never required new paperwork.  Decedent’s friends also testified that decedent had designated appellant as beneficiary on other life insurance policies and that decedent was upset that respondent was trying to get more money from him.  They further testified that decedent had had bad feelings and ill will towards respondent.  From these facts, one could infer that decedent intended to name appellant as beneficiary on the disputed life insurance policy but simply failed to do so by mistake.

Since either inference could reasonably be shown from the evidence, the district court did not err in concluding that the facts do not clearly and unambiguously show that decedent intended to change the beneficiary designation.  Decedent failed to take substantial affirmative steps to show his intention to change the beneficiary designation on the policy in dispute. Because of the ambiguity surrounding decedent’s intent, respondent is entitled to the insurance proceeds.  Respondent’s rights under the policy are not, moreover, affected by the marriage dissolution.  Consequently, there is no unjust enrichment.

Although the district court adopted verbatim respondent’s proposed findings of fact and this court has cautioned that such adoption “raises the question of whether the trial court independently evaluated each party’s testimony and evidence,” it is not reversible error per se.  Bliss v. Bliss, 493 N.W.2d 583, 590 (Minn. App. 1992), review denied (Minn. Feb. 12, 1993); see also Sigurdson v. Isanti County, 408 N.W.2d 654, 657 (Minn. App. 1987), review denied (Minn. Aug. 19, 1987).  We must still review the district court’s findings on a “clearly erroneous” standard of review.  Id.  We note further that both parties submitted proposed findings of fact.

            The district court’s findings are supported by the record and are not, therefore, clearly erroneous.  The district court did not abuse discretion in denying appellant’s request to impose a constructive trust.[3]


* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.

[1]   Pamela Rieck has received the Lutheran Brotherhood life insurance policy proceeds and they are not at issue in this case.


[2]  Appellant, as designated beneficiary, received the 401(k) retirement plan benefits and the life insurance proceeds associated with the medical plan.  Those proceeds are not at issue in this case.

[3]  Respondent seeks to preserve, should this court reverse the district court ruling, the issue of the district court’s failure to rule on respondent’s motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction.  Respondent argues that Minnesota law prevents an unmarried couple, living together in contemplation of sexual relations, who have not entered into a written contract, from receiving the legal rights of married couples.  In re Estate of Palmen, 588 N.W.2d 493, 495 (Minn. 1999); Minn. Stat. §§ 513.075, 513.076 (1998).  Because we do not reverse, we need not address this issue.