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Mendelovici v. Integrity Life Insurance Co.

New York Supreme Court, Orange County


January 23, 2009

ADDA MENDELOVICI, PLAINTIFF,
v.
INTEGRITY LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, MORITZ MENDELOVICI, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS EXECUTOR OF THE ESTATE OF LIEB MENDELOVICI AND ROBERT MCKEEVER, CLU, INDIVIDUALLY, DEFENDANTS.
INTEGRITY LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, DEFENDANT/INTERPLEADING PLAINTIFF,
MORITZ MENDELOVICI, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS CO- EXECUTOR OF THE ESTATE OF LIEB MENDELOVICI, RAUL MENDELOVICI, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS CO-EXECUTOR OF THE ESTATE OF LIEB MENDELOVICI, THE ESTATE OF LIEB MENDELOVICI AND MIRIAM FRONS, INTERPLEADING DEFENDANTS.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: William J. Giacomo, J.

Published by New York State Law Reporting Bureau pursuant to Judiciary Law § 431.

This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the printed Official Reports.

In this interpleader action commenced by Integrity Life Insurance Company (hereinafter "Integrity") the Court was asked to determine which of the competing claimants were entitled to the distribution of an annuity.

The Court, after reviewing the submissions*fn1 of the parties, the relevant statutes, case law and the annuity contract determines that the parties must evenly share the Annuity distribution and all accumulated interest.

Factual and Procedural History

After living together since 1995, on March 4, 2000, Adda Mendelovici (hereinafter "plaintiff" or "Adda") married Lieb Mendelovici (hereinafter "Lieb").

On November 20, 2000, Integrity Life Insurance Company (hereinafter "Integrity") issued an annuity (the "Annuity") which named Adda as both the "Primary Owner" and the "Annuitant" and named Miriam Frons, plaintiff's niece as the "Annuitant's Primary Beneficiary". Plaintiff claims, and no one disputes, that this annuity was purchased via her own separate assets.

Sometime in March 2002, Integrity received a "Non-Financial Service Request Form" that bears a date of March 2, 2002, that changed the "Primary Owner" on the Annuity from plaintiff to "Adda and/or Lieb Mendelovici".

In 2003 Lieb died and Moritz Mendelovici ("Moritz") and Raul Mendelovici ("Raul"), Lieb's brothers, were named co-executors of Lieb's Estate (the "Estate"). In the process of going through some documents at plaintiff's request, Moritz discovered documents concerning the Annuity*fn2. Upon inquiry to Integrity, Moritz obtained a letter from an Integrity client services' representative that stated that the "IRS rule says that on a policy where there is joint ownership if one owner passes, they both are considered deceased. Since there is no owner's primary beneficiary designated The Lieb Mendelovici Estate now becomes the new owner." (January 30, 2004 letter from Chadonia Smith of Integrity Life Insurance Company.)*fn3

In 2004, plaintiff commenced this action seeking recovery of the $100,000 annuity based upon a claim of conversion. Faced with conflicting claims to the Annuity, Integrity commenced the Interpleader action in January 2005, naming all parties with possible claims to the Annuity.

On April 30, 2007, Justice Lawrence Horowitz dismissed the plaintiff's complaint for failure to prosecute pursuant to CPLR 3216. Plaintiff moved to vacate the April 30, 2007 default judgment dismissing her complaint and in a companion motion, Integrity moved pursuant to CPLR §1006(f) for an order to allow it to pay into this Court the amount in dispute herein, then $121,102.13, and discharging it from any liability.

By decision and order dated April 22, 2008 (the "Order"), this Court denied plaintiff's motion to vacate the default and granted Integrity's motion permitting it to pay into this Court the amount of the Annuity and its accumulated interest, i.e. $121,102.13, and discharging it from any liability to any claimant.

Now before the Court is the outstanding issue of the competing claims to the proceeds of the Annuity by the claimants, plaintiff Adda Mendelovici and Moritz Mendelovici as the Co-Executor of the Estate of Lieb Mendelovici (the "Estate Claimants").

Discussion

In the instant matter the Court is presented with a non-qualified*fn4 Annuity which is co-owned by "Adda and/or Lieb Medelovici", and where there is no owner's beneficiary designated.

At the outset the Court notes that notwithstanding the Estate Claimants' argument, Adda, despite having her claims in chief dismissed as outlined above, continues to have standing in the instant interpleader action.

The Annuity was Subject to the Force-Out Rule

Internal Revenue Code (the "IRC") section 72(s) [26 U.S.C. §72(s)], entitled "Annuities; certain proceeds of endowment and life insurance contracts" provides in pertinent part:

(s) Required distributions where holder dies before entire interest is distributed. (1)...

(B) if any holder of such contract dies before the annuity starting date*fn5, the entire interest in such contract will be distributed within 5 years after the death of such holder.

26 U.S.C. § 72.

Commonly referred to as the "force-out rule", this Court will interpret the statute utilizing its plain language, i.e. if an annuity contract has joint owners, the distribution at death rules are applied upon the first death or "any holder"*fn6. See, 26 U.S.C. § 72(s)(1)(B). The force-out rule requires the end of the annuity contract and distribution of the annuity. 26 U.S.C. § 72(s).

Despite initial resistance to this approach by plaintiff, both parties now agree that this is the appropriate outcome. [See Plaintiff's Reply Memorandum of Law at Section V (B) p.9]

This Court holds that the "force-out rule" [26 U.S.C. § 72(s)(1)(B)] is applicable to the Annuity and requires distribution pursuant to the contractual terms of the Annuity.

Which Party is Entitled to the Distribution

Initially, to the extent that the Estate Claimants seek to persuade the Court that Integrity has already determined that the that the Estate Claimants must be the prevailing party for the reasons set forth in the January 30, 2004 letter from Chadonia Smith (the "Letter"), such argument is rejected. The fact that Integrity filed the interpleader clearly indicates that Integrity would have this Court make such determination. Furthermore, the Court is not bound by any determination set forth in a Letter of a client services' representative, especially under the circumstances presented here.

It is important to note that the Annuity at issue here, is an annuitant's driven contract. An annuitant's-driven contract is one where the contract is drafted to reflect a death benefit be paid out upon the death of the annuitant to the annuitant's beneficiary. In an annuitant-driven contract, it is the death of the annuitant that ends the annuity contract*fn7.

In contrast, an owner's-driven annuity contract, is one where the contract is drafted to reflect a death benefit be paid out upon the death of the owner to the owner's beneficiary and where the annuitant is merely the measuring stick for the annuity. With an owner-driven contract it is the death of the owner that ends the annuity contract*fn8.

The statute, 26 U.S.C. § 72, is written with a view to annuity contracts that are owner-driven. See, Anderson, supra , at 130. Nonetheless the statute is applicable to all non-qualified annuities, whether owner-driven or annuitant-driven. See, 26 U.S.C. § 72.Pursuant to the provisions of the statute, if the Annuity was an owner's driven contract, or if the owners of the Annuity, Lieb and Adda, had simply named an "Owner's Beneficiary", such "Owner's Beneficiary" would have been entitled to the entire forced-out distribution. 26 U.S.C. §72(s). Nonetheless in the Annuity contract before the Court no "Owner's Beneficiary" is designated and the statute does not make any direction with regard to such eventuality.

Without the benefit of a named "Owner's Beneficiary", the Estate Claimants, relying upon the Letter and the opinion of their expert, take the position that the estate of the first joint-owner to die becomes the Owner's Beneficiary, ignoring the fact that the other joint owner survives. The Court rejects this position.

The applicable rule, 26 U.S.C. §72(s)(1), does not provide that "on a policy where there is joint ownership if one owner passes, they both are considered deceased" as stated in the Letter. As set forth above, a joint-owner's death triggers the force-out rule, but this Court finds no support, and the Estate Claimants' offer no authority for their position that Adda is to be considered deceased. Accordingly, the "leap" taken by the Estate Claimants, based on the foregoing misconception, that "[s]ince there is no owner's primary beneficiary designated The Lieb Mendelovici Estate now becomes the new owner" is likewise rejected.The position taken by the Estate Claimants expert, Robert C. Anderson*fn9 is also rejected. While Mr. Anderson correctly states that the force-out rule requires the payment of the annuity as a death benefit pursuant to the terms of the Annuity, the Court rejects the balance of Mr. Anderson's "opinion" on this point. The Estate Claimants offer no support, statutory or otherwise, for Mr. Anderson's*fn10 "belief" that "state law would require the death benefit to be paid to the estate of Lieb Mendelovici". The Estate Claimants' position is essentially a reverse tenancy by the entirety, i.e. that each joint owner is possessed of the whole, but instead of the survivor taking all, it is the estate of the first to die that takes. Such an outcome would be extraordinary and unprecedented. Thus, this Court holds that without a named "Owner's Beneficiary" it would be contrary to the Annuity contract, as well as inequitable and contrary to public policy to hold that the estate of the first joint-owner to die becomes the Owner's Beneficiary.

Not surprisingly, plaintiff's position is the exact opposite of the Estate Claimants. Plaintiff asserts that Adda and Lieb owned the Annuity jointly with rights of survivorship and that Adda, as the surviving joint owner becomes the "designated beneficiary".

In support of this position, plaintiff submits an Agency Bulletin from the National Western Life Insurance Company. In this Agency Bulletin, National Western sets forth an opinion which states that when a joint owner dies, "[be]cause a surviving joint Owner remains, the surviving joint Owner receives the distribution". While this Agency Bulletin from the National Western Life Insurance Company seemingly addresses the matter at hand, it is irrelevant to the subject Annuity and therefore unpersuasive. There is no indication that National Western Life Insurance Company is any way affiliated with Integrity, or any proof that the National Western Annuity policy is comparable to the Integrity policy*fn11. Moreover, this Agency Bulletin specifically expresses that its contents only reflects the company policy of Western Life Insurance Company*fn12.

It is well settled in New York that when real property is conveyed to a husband and wife who are lawfully married to each other at the time of the conveyance they do not take as joint tenants or as tenants in common but as tenants by the entirety, each being seized by the whole and upon the death of one, the whole estate remains in the survivor. See, In re McKelway's Estate, 221 NY 15, 116 N.E. 348 (1917); Goldman v. Goldman, 95 NY2d 120, 733 NE2d 200, 711 NYS2d 128 (2000).

The same is not true for personal property. "[T]here can be no holding by the entirety in personalty." Hawthorne v. Hawthorne, 13 NY2d 82, 192 NE2d 20, 242 NYS2d 50 (1963)*fn13. Under the common law, the main difference between a joint tenancy and a tenancy in common is that a joint tenant also has an automatic inheritance right of "survivorship ," pursuant to which, upon the death of one joint tenant, that tenant's share in the property automatically passes to the remaining tenant. U.S. v. Craft, 535 U.S. 274, 122 S.Ct. 1414 (2002).

EPTL § 6-2.2 defines when an estate is in common, in joint tenancy or by the entirety. This statute provides that a "disposition of property to two or more persons creates in them a tenancy in common, unless expressly declared to be a joint tenancy."

To overcome the strong presumption that a tenancy in common was created, "a party must establish by clear and convincing evidence that a joint tenancy was intended to be created rather than a tenancy in common". Estate of Menon v. Menon, 303 AD2d 622, 623, 756 NYS2d 639, 641 (2nd Dept., 2003), citing, Matter of Vadney, 83 NY2d 885, 886, 612 NYS2d 375, 634 NE2d 976(1994).

Here, while the annuity was designated to be held by Adda and Lieb "jointly", the account documents submitted to the Court do not contain any of the necessary survivorship language. See generally, In re Estate of Degnan, 55 AD3d 1238 (4th Dept., 2008). Furthermore, no evidence has been offered that the parties intended to create a joint tenancy rather than a tenancy in common.

Therefore, this Court holds that plaintiff's position, that as a joint owner Adda takes the entire forced-out distribution, even though the Annuity contains none of the necessary survivorship language, is contrary to New York law.

This Court finds that Adda and Lieb held the Annuity as tenants in common. As such, each party, Adda and the Estate Claimants, is entitled to 50% of the forced- out Annuity distribution and its accumulated interest, i.e. 50% of the $121,102.13.

Any claims of either party not addressed herein are denied.

The foregoing constitutes the decision and order of this Court.


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