Court Held That Power-Of-Attorney Holder Was Not Authorized To Name Himself As A Beneficiary Of The Principal’s Insurance Policy, But Could Name His Sister

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In Transamerica Life Ins. Co. v. Quarm, Thomas Quarm obtained a life insurance policy and designated his mother as his beneficiary and his brother, Nicholas, as the alternate beneficiary. No. EP-16-CV-295-KC, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 192192 (W.D. Tex. November 13, 2017). Quarm later purchased an annuity product with the same beneficiaries. When the mother died, Nicholas became the primary beneficiary. Thomas then signed a durable power of attorney naming his son, Christian, as his agent with the authority to act on his behalf. Among the powers delegated to Christian was the power to perform any act Thomas could do regarding “[i]nsurance and annuity transactions,” which included the power to “modify . . . any [existing] annuity or [insurance] policy.” Id. It also empowered Christian to “engage in any transaction he . . . deems in good faith to be in [the principal’s] interest, no matter what the interest or benefit to [the] agent.” Id. Christian sent the power of attorney and a beneficiary change form naming himself as the primary beneficiary and his sister, Sarah, the as the contingent beneficiary. The insurance company determined that this form changed the beneficiary designation for both the policy and the annuity. After Thomas died, Christian and Nicholas made competing claims to the benefits under the policy and the annuity. The insurance company filed an interpleader in federal court, and Christian and Nicholas filed competing claims for the proceeds and each filed motions for summary judgment.

The district court first analyzed whether Christian’s action in naming himself was a self-interested transaction that was a breach of fiduciary duty. The court stated the law concerning self-interested transactions thusly:

While an agent who benefits from a transaction carried out on behalf of his principal bears the burden of showing that the transaction was fair, he can meet that burden by showing that the transaction was authorized by the principal. The grant of a power of attorney creates an agency relationship, which is a fiduciary relationship as a matter of law. A fiduciary owes his principal a high duty of good faith, fair dealing, honest performance, and strict accountability. Multiple courts have noted that the fiduciary relationship does “no more than cast upon the profiting fiduciary the burden of showing the fairness of the transactions.” The court in Vogt found it “worth repeating that fiduciary status does not prohibit the beneficiary from giving the fiduciary gifts or bequests; instead, it insures that the fiduciary will be prepared to prove the transaction was conducted with scrupulous fairness.” One way to establish decisively that a transaction was fair to the principal is to show that the principal consented to it. Texas courts have recognized the significance of the principal’s consent in determining whether a transaction by a profiting agent was fair or constituted self-dealing. “Unless otherwise agreed, an agent is subject to a duty to his principal to act solely for the benefit of the principal in all matters connected with his agency.” Accordingly, “absent the principal’s consent, an agent must refrain from using his position or the principal’s property to gain a benefit for himself at the principal’s expense.”

Id. (internal citation omitted).

The court noted that the power-of-attorney document specifically authorized Christian to act for his own benefit: “My agent may buy any assets of mine or engage in any transaction he or she deems in good faith to be in my interest, no matter what the interest or benefit to my agent.” Id. The court held that this language established that Christian was authorized to benefit from his use of the power of attorney and mentioned that Texas courts regularly look for such language in determining whether a profiting agent violated his fiduciary duty. The court held that Christian’s beneficiary change did not breach his fiduciary duty or constitute self-dealing.

The court then analyzed whether Christian acted in good faith as required by the power-of-attorney document. The court held that Christian provided evidence establishing that he acted fairly and in good faith when he changed the beneficiary and Nicholas failed to present contrary evidence. The court noted that because the proceeds only became available after Thomas’s death, it is undisputed that Christian’s change of beneficiary did not deprive Thomas of anything during his lifetime, reducing the potential for unfairness to Thomas. “Nevertheless, if Christian did not in good faith consider the change to be in the Decedent’s interest, he acted unfairly and outside of the scope of the Power of Attorney, rendering the change invalid.” Id. Christian provided evidence that he believed the change of beneficiary to be in Thomas’s interest in that Thomas described his four-month stay to care for Thomas during his prolonged illness. Christian also stated that Thomas made it known that Thomas wished for Christian to be designated as the beneficiary. This was corroborated by Thomas’s sister. The court stated: “This evidence, combined with the language in the Power of Attorney granting Christian the authority to benefit from transactions on Decedent’s behalf, sufficiently establishes that Christian believed in good faith that it was in the Decedent’s interest for Christian to be the designated beneficiary of the Policy and Annuity Contract.” Id.

The court, however, held that even though it was not a breach of fiduciary duty, Christian could not be a beneficiary of the policy and annuity. The court held that Christian’s use of the power of attorney was subject to the restrictions imposed by the Texas Estates Code. At the time that the power of attorney was executed, the Code provided that “The language conferring authority with respect to insurance and annuity transactions in a statutory durable power of attorney empowers the attorney in fact or agent to . . . change the beneficiary of an insurance contract or annuity.” Id. (citing Tex. Est. Code Ann. § 752.108(a)(10)). The court noted that this power was strictly limited where the agent attempts to designate himself as beneficiary: “An attorney in fact or agent may be named a beneficiary of an insurance contract or an extension, renewal, or substitute for the contract only to the extent the attorney in fact or agent was named as a beneficiary under a contract procured by the principal before executing the power of attorney.” Id. (citing Tex. Est. Code Ann. § 752.108 (b)). Further, “Unless the principal has granted the authority to create or change a beneficiary designation expressly . . . an agent may be named a beneficiary of an insurance contract . . . only to the extent the agent was named as a beneficiary by the principal.” Id.

The court held that as Christian had not previously been named as beneficiary, he was not authorized to name himself beneficiary of the policy or annuity. However, the court noted that his designation of his sister Sarah as the contingent beneficiary was authorized by both the statute and the power of attorney: “Christian was therefore authorized to remove Nicholas as a beneficiary of the Policy and designate anyone but himself as a beneficiary in his place… Barker is the proper beneficiary of the Policy and is legally entitled to collect the remaining Policy funds.” Id.

Finally, the court held that Nicholas’s cross-claims for breaches of various fiduciary duties, conversion, trespass to chattels, violation of the Theft Liability Act, and tortious interference with inheritance failed because Nicholas did not have standing to assert them. The court held:

To bring these claims, Nicholas must show that he has standing as the principal in a fiduciary relationship with Christian or demonstrate that he was deprived of a legitimate property interest. He can do neither. As the discussion above establishes, while Christian’s designation of himself as beneficiary of the Policy was not authorized by statute, his actions did not constitute self-dealing or breach any duty he held as fiduciary. Furthermore, Christian was authorized by statute to designate Sarah as the contingent beneficiary of the Policy and the Annuity Contract. Accordingly, Christian acted lawfully in removing Nicholas as the beneficiary of the Policy and Annuity Contract, and Nicholas cannot recover against him for it.

Id. Therefore, the court held that neither Christian or Nicholas were entitled to the proceeds, Christian’s sister was entitled to those funds.

Interesting Note: The court also held that “Texas courts apply the law that was in place at the time the power of attorney was executed rather than the current law.” Id. (citing Wise v. Mitchell, 2016 WL 3398447, at *8 (Tex. App. 2016) (applying sections of Probate Code—now Estates Code—that were in place “at the time the Power of Attorney was executed”); Cole v. McWillie, 464 S.W.3d 896, 898 (Tex. App. 2015) (finding that power of attorney was not durable under the Probate Code that “was in effect at the time of the execution of the power of attorney”); cf. Randall v. Kreiger, 90 U.S. 137, 138-39, 23 L. Ed. 124 (1874) (holding that a power of attorney that was invalid at the time it was made was validated by a curative act only because the act was explicitly retroactive)). The court noted that in September 2017, the Texas Estates Code was amended to read, “Unless the principal has granted the authority to create or change a beneficiary designation expressly . . . an agent may be named a beneficiary of an insurance contract . . . only to the extent the agent was named as a beneficiary by the principal.” Tex. Est. Code Ann. § 752.108(b). Accordingly, because the power of attorney was executed in October 2015, the court applied the 2015 statute and not the 2017 amendment.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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