Court Cases & Orders

Daughters Named as Beneficiaries, But Widow’s Right to Million-Dollar Insurance Policy Proceeds Determined by Ontario Succession Law

Daughters Named as Beneficiaries, But Widow’s Right to Million-Dollar Insurance Policy Proceeds Determined by Ontario Succession Law

In Matthews v. Matthews Estate, the husband and wife – who had two daughters together – separated in 2006.   The separation and divorce was typical, and included the usual requests for relief including a divorce, child and spousal support, child custody, exclusive possession of the matrimonial home, and equalization of Net Family Property.  Over the next few years, the parties managed to settle and resolve most of these matters, with the exception of spousal support and equalization which still remained to be determined.

However, there were a few little twists in the story.  

The first is not unusual:   at the time of separation, the husband had a $1 million life insurance policy, and had named his two daughters and sister as beneficiaries.  The daughters were to share $900,000 of the policy proceeds upon the husband’s death, with his sister taking the remaining $100,000.

The second twist, however, was that the husband died in the summer of 2010, just after the trial on the remaining matrimonial had begun (in May), but before the judge had written up the reasons for judgment (in August).  It is important to note that just before the husband’s death, the court in the process of sorting out the parties’ matrimonial issues had made an order vesting the life insurance policy in the wife, designating her the sole beneficiary, and making her responsible for paying all the premiums, going forward.

The third twist is that the without the $1 million life insurance policy, the husband’s estate did not have enough money to satisfy the wife’s spousal support needs.    In fact, at the time of the husband’s death, the matrimonial home had not yet been sold, the husband’s estate was insolvent, and the question of spousal support entitlement and an equalization payment to the wife were still unresolved.

As a result – and despite the fact that the deceased husband had named the daughters and his sister as beneficiaries – the entitlement to the proceeds of the policy was still an issue; the wife was asking for these proceeds to be used in order to pay the support that she was entitled to, as a dependent widow under the Succession Law Reform Act.  (That legislation provides that where a deceased has not made adequate provision for the support of his or her dependants (whether by testamentary document or otherwise), the court may order that funds from the deceased’s estate be used for the dependant’s proper support).

As the court put it, after reviewing the history of the litigation and interaction between the various parties:

It soon became clear that the real contest between the parties was centred on the one million dollar insurance policy.  

The court reviewed the interplay between the beneficiaries’ rights under the policy and the law of dependant’s relief.  It concluded that the Succession Law Reform Act makes it clear that the proceeds of the husband’s life insurance policy can be treated as part of the deceased husband’s estate, and can be used to pay support to the dependant wife – notwithstanding the fact that the husband may have irrevocably designated the daughter and sisters as beneficiaries under the policy.   In other words, if the assets of the husband’s estate were insufficient to meet the husband’s obligations to support his wife as a dependant, then the court must look to his other assets – including the life insurance policy proceeds – which pass by right of survivorship or pass outside the will.     Moreover, in such cases the family litigation is converted into a claim under the Succession Law Reform Act.

However, the court added a caution for these kinds of cases:   Given that by virtue of the Act the proceeds of the husband’s life insurance policy (which is not normally part of a deceased’s estate) are nonetheless being brought into the estate, this will naturally affect the beneficiary daughters and sister detrimentally.  As such, care must be taken to ensure that the burden of any support order in favour of the wife is first borne by the traditional assets of the deceased’s husband’s estate, before any encroachment is made upon on the insurance proceeds.

(As a side note, the court also observed that Spousal Support Advisory Guidelines were not an appropriate tool for determining the spousal support obligations of the deceased husband.  Rather, there were to be determined pursuant to s. 62 of the Succession Law Reform Act, which sets out those circumstances that are to be considered in determining the amount and duration of spousal support.)

For the full text of the decision, see:

Matthews v. Matthews Estate (2012), 2012 ONSC 933

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