TTSI Irrevocable Trust v. Reliastar Life Ins. Co., — So.3d —-, 2011 WL 1810601 (Fla. 5th DCA May 13, 2011)

Trusts and estates lawyers usually focus on the estate-tax planning benefits of life insurance, especially when used to fund an irrevocable life insurance trust or “ILIT”. What we don’t often focus on are the non-tax, state law requirements peculiar to life insurance contracts, such as the insurable interest requirement. What makes this ILIT case interesting is that it has nothing to do with taxes. Instead it’s all about how an ILIT can fall apart for non-tax reasons if you blow Florida’s insurable interest requirement.

Insurable Interest:

Florida codified the insurable interest doctrine for life insurance contracts in F.S. 627.404, which requires that an insurable interest exist at the time the policy is applied for. An insurable interest is established when the purchaser of the policy will benefit more from that person being alive, whether emotionally or financially. The obvious point being that we don’t want people buying life insurance contracts then killing the insured to collect on the policy [click here]. Without an insurable interest, a life insurance policy is considered void ab initio.

When an individual purchases a life insurance policy on himself or herself, there is automatically an insurable interest. An insurable interest can also be created under F.S. 627.404 when there is a strong relationship between the purchaser and the insured based on blood, marriage or pecuniary interest.

Case Study:

In this case a life insurance agent purchased a $370,912 life insurance policy on the life of his 85-year-old client. The life insurance was owned by an ILIT of which the life insurance agent and his children were the only beneficiaries. The case revolved around two primary issues:

  1. Did insurance agent have an insurable interest in the life of his client?
  2. If there was no insurable interest, was life insurance agent entitled to a refund of the premiums paid on the policy?

Under the facts of this case, the anwer to both questions was NO.

[1] Insurable Interest? NO

You can have an insurable interest in a non-family member’s life under F.S. 627.404 if the insured is worth more to you alive than dead. Here’s how the statute lays out this prong of the insurable interest test:

An individual has an insurable interest in the life, body, and health of another person if such individual has an expectation of a substantial pecuniary advantage through the continued life, health, and safety of that other person and consequent substantial pecuniary loss by reason of the death, injury, or disability of that other person.

Insurance agent argued he satisfied this prong of the insurable interest test because the insured was one of his “key” clients. Here’s how the 5th DCA described the trial court’s ruling and why this ruling meant the subject life insurance policy was void ab initio.

In January, 2009, TTSI filed a 3–count complaint against ReliaStar for breach of contract, anticipatory breach of contract, and declaratory relief, requesting that the court require ReliaStar to reinstate the policy. ReliaStar answered the complaint and later moved for summary judgment based on the argument that the policy was void ab initio because TTSI never had an insurable interest in Ms. Tennant’s life. At the trial level, TTSI argued that Ms. Tennant was a “key client” of Mr. Moses and therefore it had an insurable interest in Ms. Tennant’s life. The trial court rejected TTSI’s argument and determined that no insurable interest existed. See § 627.404, Fla. Stat. (2004). That ruling is not challenged on appeal.

Where the owner of an insurance policy lacks an insurable interest in the life of the insured, the policy is void ab initio because it is considered a “wagering contract” and contrary to public policy. See, e.g., Knott v. State ex rel. Guar. Income Life Ins. Co., 136 Fla. 184, 186 So. 788, 789 (1939) (“[I]t has been uniformly held that a contract of insurance upon a life in which the insurer has no interest is a pure wager, that gives the insurer a sinister counter-interest in having the life come to an end.”); Lopez v. Life Ins. Co. of America, 406 So.2d 1155, 1158 (Fla. 4th DCA 1981) (“Florida law requires that an individual contracting for insurance on the life of another have an insurable interest … The obvious purpose of that requirement is to prevent so-called ‘wagering’ contracts.”), approved, 443 So.2d 947 (Fla.1983); Aetna Ins. Co. v. King, 265 So.2d 716, 718 (Fla. 1st DCA 1972) (“The public policy of this state renders an insurance policy invalid when the insured has no insurable interest in the property or the risk insured on the grounds that same constitutes a wagering contract.”); Atkinson v. Wal–Mart Stores, Inc., No. 8:08–CV–691–T–30TBM, 2009 WL 1458020, at *3 (M.D.Fla. May 26, 2009) (“Florida courts have long held that insurable interest is necessary to the validity of an insurance contract and, if it is lacking, the policy is considered a wagering contract and void ab initio as against public policy.”).

[2] Void Life Insurance Policy = No Refunds

Insurance agent then argued that if the life insurance policy wasn’t valid, at the very least he should be entitled to a refund of premiums paid. Strike two: trial court said NO to this too, and the 5th DCA agreed. Here’s why:

TTSI argues that notwithstanding the invalidity of the insurance policy, it is still entitled to a refund of the premiums paid. In support thereof, TTSI cites to Gonzalez v. Eagle Ins., Co., 948 So.2d 1 (Fla. 3d DCA 2006), Perlman v. Prudential Ins. Co. of America, Inc., 686 So.2d 1378 (Fla. 3d DCA 1997), and Diaz v. Fla. Ins. Guar. Ass’n, Inc., 650 So.2d 675 (Fla. 3d DCA 1995) for the proposition that where a policy is rescinded or declared void, a refund of premiums paid, in part or in whole, is required in order to return to the status quo. These cases are readily distinguishable. In each of these cases, a party sought to rescind an insurance contract because of an alleged fraud in the inducement. Rescission is an equitable remedy where the primary obligation is to undo the original transaction and restore the former status of the parties. Billian v. Mobil Corp., 710 So.2d 984, 990 (Fla. 4th DCA 1998). Moreover, rescission is an elective remedy and the party may, but is not obligated to, exercise its right to rescind the transaction. See, e.g., Towers v. Clarendon Nat’l Ins. Co., 927 So.2d 913, 914 (Fla. 2d DCA 2006).

By contrast, the present case does not involve a voidable contract. Rather, neither party could elect to give effect to the policy at issue because it was void at the outset. Furthermore, as a general rule, contracts that are void as contrary to public policy will not be enforced by the courts and the parties will be left as the court found them. See, e.g., Harris v. Gonzalez, 789 So.2d 405 (Fla. 4th DCA 2001); Castro v. Sangles, 637 So.2d 989 (Fla. 3d DCA 1994). We see no reason to depart from the general rule where, as in the instant case, the party seeking to enforce the contract is the only party who engaged in deceptive and misleading conduct at the time the contract was entered into. See also Sec. Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Little, 119 Ark. 498, 178 S.W. 418 (1915) (where party enters into unlawful contracts for insurance policies on the lives of persons on which it had no insurable interest, contracts are unenforceable and party is not entitled to recover amounts previously paid to insurer).