Crawford v. Barker, — So.3d —-, 2011 WL 2224808 (Fla. Jun 09, 2011)

In 1951 Florida enacted a statute automatically cutting divorced spouses out of each other’s wills (currently at F.S. 732.507(2)). In 1989 Florida enacted a similar statute for revocable trusts (currently at F.S. 736.1105). The same inequities that lead to post-divorce automatic revocation statutes for wills and revocable trusts are now playing themselves out in cases involving beneficiary-designated non-probate assets benefiting ex-spouses.

Florida courts have traditionally applied classic contract interpretation rules to beneficiary-designated assets benefiting ex-spouses. In most cases this means the ex-spouse gets the assets. In Smith v. Smith, 919 So.2d 525 (Fla. 5th DCA 2005), which I wrote about here, the court articulated the majority approach in Florida as follows:

In the present, case the marital settlement agreement fails to make specific reference to the proceeds of the life insurance policy in question, and the decedent, in the words of the Florida Supreme Court, . . . "did just what he needed to ensure that the proceeds would go to [Ms. Smith]-he did nothing." [Cooper v. Muccitelli (Cooper II), 682 So.2d 77, 79 (Fla.1996)]. He had a year and a half to execute change of beneficiary forms as required by his policy of insurance, but for whatever reason, he did not do so. Thus, Ms. Smith is entitled to the proceeds of the life insurance policies.

The 3d DCA broke with the majority rule in Barker v. Crawford, 16 So.3d 901 (Fla. 3d DCA 2009), crafting a form of post-divorce automatic revocation rule based on the facts of the case. The Florida Supreme Court then stepped in, reversed the 3d DCA, and in the linked-to opinion above reiterated that the rule in Florida for these cases is the majority approach articulated in Smith v. Smith.

Case Study:

In the linked-to case above the decedent opened a deferred compensation fund while married and named his spouse as the beneficiary of that fund in the event of his death. He subsequently divorced and he and his spouse entered into a marital settlement agreement that provided in relevant part as follows:

“Husband shall retain retirement money with the Town of Surfside and the Deferred Compensation Fund f/ka/ [sic] Pepsco.”

The agreement also provided that the husband “shall retain annuity with Pacific Life.” The agreement did not contain a general waiver provision or any other provision referencing the pension, annuity, or the deferred compensation fund at issue in this case.

About a year after the divorce the decedent passed away, never having removed his ex spouse as the beneficiary of his deferred comp’ plan. The 3d DCA ruled that the post-divorce ownership of his deferred comp’ plan = ex wife didn’t get the money unless husband re-affirmed his intent to benefit her post-divorce (which he hadn’t, he’d done nothing). The Florida Supreme Court reversed the 3d DCA and instead reaffirmed the approach taken by the 5th DCA in Smith v. Smith.

Absent the marital settlement agreement providing who is or is not to receive the death benefits or specifying the beneficiary, courts should look no further than the named beneficiary on the policy, plan, or account. General language such as language stating who is to receive ownership is not specific enough to override the plain language of the beneficiary designation. Magic words are not required; however, if the parties wish to specify in a marital settlement agreement that a spouse will not receive the death benefits or wish to specify a particular beneficiary, this should be done clearly and unambiguously. Otherwise, the unifying principle of Cooper II, Smith, and Luszcz applies—that the spouse who receives the policy, plan, or account as part of the marital settlement agreement is free to designate whomever he or she chooses as the beneficiary.

………..

We now apply the rule of law to this case. Here, the settlement agreement provided: “Husband shall retain retirement money with” the deferred compensation fund. The agreement did not state who would receive the death benefits or who should be the beneficiary of the deferred compensation fund. However, the contract with Nationwide Retirement Solutions clearly designated Linda Crawford as the beneficiary. Accordingly, looking to the plain language of these documents, the beneficiary designation controls.

………..

In sum, we conclude, after reviewing the language of the marital settlement agreement, that the agreement gave Manuel Crawford ownership of the deferred compensation fund. As the owner, he had the right to designate the beneficiary of his choosing under the terms of the agreement—he was not obligated by the agreement to either maintain or change the beneficiary, and the agreement did not specify who was or was not to receive the death benefits. Thus, because the beneficiary designated on the deferred compensation fund is Linda Crawford, she is entitled to the death benefits.

Florida Needs to Adopt UPC 2-804:

It is inconsistent and illogical to have an automatic post-divorce revocation statute for wills (F.S. 732.507(2)), and revocable trusts (F.S. 736.1105), but not for beneficiary-designated non-probate assets benefiting ex-spouses. Clearly it is not the judiciary’s role to create revocation law where none exists (which is what the 3d DCA tried to do). This problem needs a legislative fix.

The way to fix this problem in Florida is by adopting section 2-804 of the Uniform Probate Code, which is the UPC’s version of an automatic post-divorce revocation statute applicable to beneficiary-designated non-probate assets. For an excellent discussion of why this is a good idea you’ll want to read an article written by Tampa attorney Suzanne Glickman entitled A Fair Presumption: Why Florida Needs a Divorce Revocation Statute for Beneficiary-Designated Nonprobate Assets. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

Life insurance and other nonprobate assets such as annuities, pay-on-death accounts, and retirement planning accounts have become increasingly popular as estate planning tools. In 2004, Americans purchased $3.1 trillion in new life insurance coverage, a ten percent increase from just ten years before. Purchases made by Floridians accounted for nearly $154 million of this national total. At the end of 2004, there was $17.5 trillion in life insurance policy coverage in the United States. However, it is likely that some of those policies will not provide security for the individuals for whom they were intended, especially if the policyholder resides in Florida. An unfortunate but familiar scenario occurs when a divorced individual fails to change the designated beneficiary on his or her life insurance policy or other contract-based estate planning tool, and the ex-spouse receives the insurance proceeds upon that individual’s death. Whether due to over-sight, mistake, or poor comprehension of the way contracts such as life insurance policies operate, the outcome is especially regrettable when the decedent policyholder leaves behind minor children or a financially struggling family.

While some jurisdictions have enacted legislation to avoid [this result], Florida has not. This Article will propose a Florida divorce revocation statute for nonprobate assets such as life insurance policies, annuities, IRAs and retirement-planning accounts, pay-on-death accounts, and any other type of contract-based asset designating an ex-spouse as beneficiary. By automatically revoking nonprobate asset beneficiary designations upon divorce, such a statute will more accurately enforce the deceased policyholder’s intent and avoid seemingly inequitable results . . .