In a recent Rhode Island case, the state supreme court had to decide whether a defendant was entitled to an annuity policy.
Plaintiff appealed from a Superior Court judgment in favor of Defendant, the beneficiary of an Amica Insurance Company annuity policy created by the plaintiff’s great-uncle and the defendant’s brother. This Rhode Island insurance law case came before the state’s Supreme Court pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause as to why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. After considering the parties’ written and oral submissions and reviewing the record, the Rhode Island Supreme Court concluded that cause had not been shown and that the case could be decided without further briefing or argument.
Among other assets accumulated during his twenty-five-year career with the Providence Police Department and subsequent twenty-five years as a security officer for Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Rhode Island, the great-uncle owned two Amica annuity policies. At the time of his death, one account was valued at approximately $360,000 and the other at $20,000; only the larger account is the subject of this appeal. The two annuities were opened approximately a decade apart and each named the great-uncle’s sister as the primary beneficiary. After the sister’s death in 2002, the great-uncle executed two change-of-beneficiary forms naming the defendant, his younger sister, as the beneficiary of both policies.
On April 29, 2013, the great-uncle died testate, leaving the defendant as the sole beneficiary of the two Amica annuity policies. Shortly thereafter, the plaintiff contacted Amica to notify it of the great-uncle’s passing and was informed that he was not listed as a beneficiary of the annuities. On the day after the great-uncle’s funeral, the plaintiff confronted the defendant; and, on November 14, 2013, he filed a complaint against her alleging forgery, fraud, manipulation, false pretenses, and misrepresentation. The plaintiff also alleged a lack of intent on the part of the great-uncle.
A trial was held before a Superior Court justice sitting without a jury in January 2015. On the third day of trial, plaintiff filed, without objection by defendant, an amended complaint alleging that the beneficiary-change forms were executed by the great-uncle through mistake or inadvertence. The trial justice filed a written decision on February 2, 2015; and, on February 4, 2015, final judgment was entered in favor of defendant. Subsequently, the trial justice heard and denied plaintiff’s motion for a new trial, and plaintiff appealed.
Plaintiff first argued that the trial justice misconstrued his theory of the case and thereby erred by applying the wrong law to the evidence. Plaintiff contended that the trial justice erroneously focused on the issue of undue influence and failed to consider that the great-uncle made a mistake due to a lack of testamentary intent.
The Rhode Island Supreme Court was satisfied that the trial justice considered, yet rejected, the possibility that the great-uncle had changed the beneficiary of his annuities by mistake or inadvertence. The trial justice concluded that there was no evidence put forth at trial that would explain the great-uncle’s change of heart.
What was clear, the court held, was that the great-uncle was very deliberate in planning his estate and in changing the beneficiary designations on the two annuity contracts at issue. The trial justice referenced the evidence that the great-uncle had sought out by himself the two individuals who would witness the change-of-beneficiary forms, that he personally spoke to Amica before executing the forms, that he did not involve defendant in his estate planning, and that he told his nephew that he had “screwed up” by giving the plaintiff too much money.
The state high court saw no cause to disturb the trial justice’s finding that the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrated that the great-uncle was an independent, hard-working, and kind-hearted man, who acted with great deliberation in planning his estate. The court concluded that the plaintiff’s claim failed from a lack of proof, rather than from the trial justice’s misapplication of the law to the evidence.
Plaintiff next argued that the trial justice erred in overlooking and misconceiving material evidence pertaining to one of the beneficiary-change forms. The plaintiff asserted that the trial justice erroneously referred, in his decision, to the beneficiary-change form as a “preprinted” annuity form on which the name of the beneficiary had been printed by Amica, when in fact the name of the intended beneficiary was blank on the forms sent by Amica.
At a hearing on the plaintiff’s motion to clarify, the trial justice conceded that he had mischaracterized the forms as preprinted but stated that it did not materially or otherwise change the court’s view of the facts. The trial justice acknowledged his mistake and emphatically declared that it did not alter his ultimate conclusion. Therefore, the state high court saw no reason to vacate the judgment.
Plaintiff next argued that the trial justice erred in failing to take judicial notice of the findings made by another Superior Court justice after a hearing on the plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction. The state high court held that the trial justice did not err in refusing to take judicial notice of the factual findings made by the hearing justice at the hearing on the preliminary injunction. The hearing justice did not make an express determination as to who would prevail, because that was not the issue before the court. Moreover, the trial justice made his findings after additional discovery had been conducted and a more complete record was before the court.
Additionally, the plaintiff asserted in his supplemental statement that the burden of proof should have shifted to the defendant to prove absence of mistake because the defendant and great-uncle had a confidential relationship. Although the great-uncle clearly trusted and confided in the defendant, there is no evidence that he relied on her advice in his financial affairs. Indeed, the defendant testified that the great-uncle was “very quiet about his things,” never discussed his estate planning with her, nor had he told her what accounts he had. Thus, the court found no error on the part of the Superior Court in refusing to shift the burden of proof.
Finally, the plaintiff asserted in his supplemental statement that the trial justice erred in finding that the defendant was forthright and credible. Plaintiff’s citation of a quote did not sway the court to ignore the clear credibility determination of the Superior Court. Its review of the record did not persuade it that the trial justice was clearly wrong or that he misconceived or overlooked material evidence. Accordingly, the court could not say that the trial justice erred in finding that the defendant was forthright and credible.
For these reasons, the Rhode Island Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Superior Court and remanded.
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