Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Quit While You're Ahead.

Older practitioners in Maryland will sometimes make reference to "Maryland Rule 2"--"Quit while you're ahead." Meaning, stop arguing when it's obvious that the Court is preparing to rule in your favor. (Maryland Rule 1 is, well, Rule 1.)

A recent decision from the U.S. District Court for Eastern District of Virginia, Chawla v. Transamerican Occidental Life Insurance Co. (February 3, 2005) serves to prove that judges would be well-advised to adhere to the spirit, if not the precise letter, of the rule. In that case, the Court had more than adequate grounds to apply well-accepted legal principles to decide cross motions for summary judgment. Then, the Court broke new ground merely to bolster its ruling. This additional basis for the Court's ruling, if widely adopted, would threaten the widely used estate planning technique of having a trust own life insurance policies.

In May of 2000, Geisinger, the decedent, applied for a $1M life insurance policy naming Ms. Chawla as the sole beneficiary. Transamerican refused to issue the policy on the basis that Chawla had no insurable interest in Geisinger's life. In response, Geisinger established a trust, with himself and Chawla as trustees, and had the trust purchase the policy. Later that year, the trust purchased additional insurance on Geisinger, bringing the total death benefit to $2.45M. Geisinger died in late September, 2001.

At the time that the policy was initially issued, Geisinger had serious health issues: In October of 1999, he had been operated on for the partial removal of a brain tumor. Thereafter, he suffered from a variety of residual neurological affects. Also, in October of 1999, he was diagnosed with "chronic alcohol poisoning in conjunction with known chronic alcohol abuse." In the period leading up to the point at which the initial insurance policy was issued, he was hospitalized on several occasions due to both the brain tumor and the alcoholism. After the issuance of the policy, Geisinger suffered further serious incidents due to the alcoholism. Of course, none of these issues were disclosed on the application for the insurance policy or the application for the increased death benefit. After the Geisinger's death, Transamerican acted to rescind the policy and refunded all of the premiums previously paid.

Applying Maryland law (the insurance contracts were entered into in Maryland), the Court had no difficulty in concluding that the policy and the increase in the death benefit had been procured through a material misrepresentation. After all, Geisinger's health was on a clear downward trajectory and he failed to disclose any of the relevant facts on his application. (It is worthy of some note that Ms. Chawla's husband, a physician, had examined Geisinger and his report was submitted with the insurance application. The report did not refer to the brain tumor or the alcoholism and confirmed Geisinger's "good health.")

The evidence to support the Court's ruling on the basis of Geisinger's misrepresentation was more than sufficient to allow the Court to rule in favor of Transamerican. The Court should have stopped there. Instead, the Court went on to offer an alternative basis for its decision, namely that the trust lacked an insurable interest in Geisinger's life.

For a variety of reasons, most significantly the minimization of estate taxes, individuals will often form a trust and have the trust acquire an insurance policy on their life. This is a fairly standard planning tool. The Court's ruling, if allowed to stand and broadly applied, would destroy this tool completely. (A practitioner quoted in an article in the Washington Post notes that the statute upon which the ruling was based has analogues in a "half-dozen" other states. While I am not an expert in this area, I suspect that the number of states with similar statutes may actually be higher.)

The Court's alternative holding is simply gratuitous. Even though the action was brought in a federal court in Virginia, choice of law principles should have been invoked to require the Court, if not counsel, to apply Maryland Rule 2.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

He was doing a Chihuahua? THAT'S SICK.