Metropolitan Life Insurance Company v. Miner et al
Magistrate Judge Katherine A. Robertson: ORDER entered. FINDINGS OF FACT AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW, AND ORDER entered. The proceeds of the Policy issued by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, which have previously been paid into this court, shall be paid, with accrued interest, to Susan Miner. Judgment shall enter in Susan Miners favor, and the case shall be closed on the courts docket.(Finn, Mary)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS
SUSAN J. MINER, et al.,
Civil Action No. 16-cv-30030-KAR
FINDINGS OF FACT, CONCLUSIONS OF LAW, AND ORDER
This is an action in interpleader concerning entitlement to the proceeds of a life insurance
policy (the “Policy”) issued by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (“MetLife”) on the life of
Ruth E. Wright (“Wright”), now deceased. MetLife was dismissed from the action after it
deposited the policy proceeds plus accumulated interest with the clerk of the court. The
claimants, Susan J. Miner (“Miner”), Marcia Brown (“Brown”), and Pamela Whitacre
(“Whitacre”) – the latter of whom is named in her capacity of Executrix of Wright’s Estate – are
all daughters of Wright’s. Miner claims that she is the rightful recipient of the funds because, in
2011, Wright assigned ownership of the Policy to her, and she became the sole primary
beneficiary. Brown and Whitacre maintain that the document whereby the assignment was
accomplished is a forgery, and Wright’s Estate is the rightful beneficiary. The parties, all of
whom proceeded pro se, consented to the exercise of this court’s jurisdiction for all purposes.
See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); Fed. R. Civ. P. 73. After a two-day bench trial, the court finds that
Miner is the owner and beneficiary of the Policy and is entitled to the Policy proceeds.
Findings of Fact 1
Wright obtained the Policy on March 3, 1983, through her insurance agent, Paul
Catelotti. She named her Estate as the sole primary beneficiary of the Policy proceeds. The
Policy contained the following provisions regarding changing owners and beneficiaries:
Change of Ownership – You may name a new owner at any time.
Beneficiary – The beneficiary is the person or persons to whom
the insurance proceeds are payable when the insured dies. …. If
no beneficiary or contingent beneficiary is named … the owner (or
the owner’s estate) will be the beneficiary.
How to Change the Owner or the Beneficiary – You may
change the owner, contingent owner, beneficiary or contingent
beneficiary of this policy by written notice or assignment of the
On November 23, 1993, Wright assigned ownership of the Policy to Flynn & Dagnoli
Funeral Home, Inc., (“Flynn & Dagnoli”) in North Adams, Massachusetts, and Flynn & Dagnoli
became the sole primary beneficiary. Wright had entered into a pre-need funeral/burial contract
with Flynn & Dagnoli to be buried in Massachusetts, where she resided at the time, and she
executed the assignment in Flynn & Dagnoli’s favor in order to fund the arrangement. Wright’s
son, Robert Wright (“Robert”), was with Wright when she made the prearrangements with Flynn
& Dagnoli, and he assisted her in the process.
Wright moved to Florida in 2009. On September 24, 2009, Wright executed a durable
power of attorney (“POA”) appointing Miner, who also lived in Florida, as her agent to handle
various financial and legal matters on her behalf, including the authority to “act[ ] as [her]
attorney or proxy with respect to any policy of insurance on [her] life, and in such capacity to
The court states its findings of fact and conclusions of law separately, as required by Federal
Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a)(1).
exercise any rights, privileges or options which [she] may have thereunder and pertaining
Sometime after her move to Florida, Wright also completed and signed a “Five Wishes”
document, an end-of-life planning tool, in which she stated her desire to have her body cremated
after her death. 2 Miner provided a copy of Wright’s “Five Wishes” to Claudia Hunter
(“Hunter”), one of her sisters, and another of Wright’s daughters, who also lived in Florida.
Because of their proximity to their mother, Miner and Hunter both acted as caregivers for their
mother in her final years.
In late April or early May 2011, Miner called Robert and informed him that Wright had
designated Miner as her power of attorney and that her funeral prearrangements were to be
moved from Massachusetts to Florida. Miner asked Robert where Wright’s life insurance policy
was, and Robert advised that it was with Flynn & Dagnoli.
In a document dated May 18, 2011, Flynn & Dagnoli transferred its rights and interests in
the Policy and its proceeds back to Wright. Miner contacted Catelotti by telephone and
requested that he send Wright the appropriate document for Wright to transfer ownership of the
Policy to Miner. 3 Catelotti mailed a two-page “Absolute Assignment” form to Wright (the
“Absolute Assignment”). The Absolute Assignment provides that it is “only for a complete
Transfer of Ownership,” and the “new owner[ ] will be the primary beneficiary [ ] unless a
different beneficiary designation is made by the new owner.” Catelotti sent the Absolute
Assignment with certain information already filled in, including the number of the Policy,
Wright’s name in the spaces provided for “Insured” and “Owner,” and Miner’s name in the
The document is undated, and there was no testimony at the trial establishing the date on which
it was executed.
Miner testified at trial that she called Catelotti with Wright on the line. Catelotti did not recall
Wright being party to the call. It is unnecessary for the court to resolve this discrepancy.
spaces provided for “Assignee.” The Absolute Assignment provides that, by executing it,
“Owner … assign[s] ownership of the policy with all rights, powers, interests, privileges,
benefits, options, sums of money and all proceeds under the policy to: Assignee.” Catelotti
included check marks on the first page next to a space for “Owner’s Initials” and on the second
page next to spaces for “Signature of Owner” and “Signature of Assignee.” The form includes
“Signature Requirements,” specifying that “[a]ll signatures should be witnessed by a
disinterested adult.” Each signature block – one for Owner and one for Assignee – includes
spaces for two witnesses to sign and print their names.
Miner testified at trial that Wright initialed and signed the Absolute Assignment on May
20, 2011, in the manager’s office of the apartment complex where Wright resided, in front of
Miner and co-managers Jacqueline Safford and Jackie Shepard. Both Safford and Shepard then
signed the document as witnesses. 4 After it was executed, Miner returned the Absolute
Assignment to Catelotti by mail.
Catelotti observed upon receipt that Wright’s signature looked similar to previous
signatures of hers that he had on file, and he forwarded the Absolute Assignment to the MetLife
home office for recording.
At some point after moving to Florida, Wright was diagnosed with cancer. By January 6,
2015, Wright had become quite ill and was in considerable pain, and she was admitted to the
hospital. While in the hospital, Wright had a conversation with Brown about wanting her last
wishes changed; she no longer wanted her remains to be cremated, but rather, once again, wanted
to be buried in Massachusetts. Wright expressed concern to Brown that Miner would be “mad”
These same two individuals acted as witnesses to Wright’s signature on her Five Wishes
about the change, but Brown assured Wright that her last wishes would happen. Thereafter,
Hunter contacted Wright’s attorney.
Wright was discharged from the hospital to a nursing home under hospice care on
January 16, 2015. On January 19, 2015, Wright executed a new durable POA designating
Hunter or Robert as her agent to handle various financial and legal matters on her behalf,
excluding the power to create or change beneficiary designations. 5 At the same time, Wright
executed a Last Will and Testament stating that it was her desire to be buried in North Adams,
MA, by Flynn & Dagnoli. Hunter’s husband, Louis Hunter (“Louis”), was present for Wright’s
execution of the will, and he signed it as a witness. According to Louis, Wright’s attorney was
scheduled to meet with Wright at the nursing home at 10:30 a.m. that day. Miner was unaware
that Wright was going to be meeting with her attorney to sign a new POA and will, and she
showed up unexpectedly at 10:00 a.m. Miner ended up staying only about ten minutes, and, after
she left, Wright made a comment to Hunter and Louis to the effect of, “Wow, that was close,”
the implication being that Miner had nearly found out about her intention to change her
Wright died on February 3, 2015.
On March 5, 2015, Brown contacted Carole Mallard at MetLife and advised Mallard that
she did not believe the signature on the Absolute Assignment was Wright’s. By March 23, 2015,
Brown believed that the signature was Wright’s, but that the initials were not, and she contacted
Mallard and advised her accordingly.
Two forensic document examiners, Jan Leach and William Smith, testified at the trial.
The court found that both Leach and Smith were qualified to offer expert opinion testimony on
Miner claims that the document was not properly notarized, but that issue need not be
addressed for purposes of resolving the dispute between the parties.
handwriting examination based on their training and experience. The two collaborated in
reaching their opinion that the initials and signature on the Absolute Assignment were not
Wright’s. In their written report, Leach and Smith explained that they compared the questioned
initials and signature on the Absolute Assignment with known samples of Wright’s initials and
signature that had been provided to them, consisting of Wright’s initials on a November 2011
will and the January 2015 POA, and Wright’s signatures on the same November 2011 will, a
2011 affidavit, and a 2009 POA. Leach and Smith concluded in their report that, “[t]here are too
many fundamental differences in both the initials and signature on the questioned document for
them to be genuine.” They went on to state that,
[m]ore compelling, however, is that the signature in question
nearly matches a known signature from [a] Durable Power of
Attorney signed two years before. It is a poorly made simulation
or tracing appearing on the questioned document. Therefore, it is
our opinion that Ruth E. Wright did not make the initials nor did
she sign the document in question.
Leach testified that a fundamental principal of document examination is that an
individual can never write his or her name the same exact way twice; there is always natural
variation. Forensic document examiners, therefore, have to know the difference between natural
variation and fundamental differences. According to Leach, she and Smith identified 16
fundamental differences in the initials and signature on the Absolute Assignment as compared to
the known samples, which they enumerate one-by-one in their report. Because “the authorities”
provide that two or more fundamental differences are enough to raise a flag, sixteen was too
many for the initials and the signature on the Absolute Assignment to be genuine. Smith
identified what he viewed as the most outstanding of the so-called fundamental differences.
Regarding Wright’s initials, Smith noted that, in the known samples, Wright’s initials were
scripted, while, in the Absolute Assignment, they were printed. Regarding Wright’s signature,
Smith observed that in each of the known samples, the second loop of the “W” beginning
Wright’s last name was raised as compared to the first, while in the Absolute Assignment, this
was reversed with the second loop being lower than the first. Smith also noted that Wright’s
middle initial “E” in each of the known signatures slants to the right, while, in the Absolute
Assignment, it is more vertical. In addition to noting the presence of fundamental differences,
both Leach and Wright testified to the similarity between the signature on the Absolute
Assignment and the signature on the 2009 POA, with Leach testifying that they thought the
former was a simulation or copy, albeit poor, of the latter.
Having heard all of the evidence, the court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that
the initials and signature on the Absolute Assignment are Wright’s, as testified to by Miner. The
court is persuaded that Wright initialed and signed the Absolute Assignment in 2011 to change
ownership of the Policy from Flynn & Dagnoli to Miner in line with her changed wishes at the
time that her remains be cremated rather than buried in Massachusetts upon her death. While
Wright may have changed her wishes again in her final days and once again decided that she
wanted her body to be buried in Massachusetts, this would not affect the validity of the alreadycompleted Absolute Assignment. The court’s finding is consistent with the testimony that
Wright did experience such an end-of-life change of mind; the only reason Wright would have
needed to change her wishes back to burial in Massachusetts would be if she had changed them
to something else earlier. In not crediting Leach and Smith’s expert opinion that the initials and
signature on the Absolute Assignment are a forgery, the court notes that their opinion is based on
their subjective judgment and is at least somewhat internally inconsistent, premised as it is on
their determination that the questioned signature is both too different (i.e., too many fundamental
differences in comparison with the known samples) and too similar (i.e., a poor simulation or
copy of the known signature on the 2009 POA) to be genuine. The court also notes that their
conclusion conflicts with Catelotti’s observation that the signature on the 2011 Absolute
Assignment was similar to other signatures that he had on file for Wright, and Hunter’s
conclusion that the signature was that of her mother after initially suspecting that it was not.
CONCLUSIONS OF LAW
In interpleader, the plaintiff ordinarily is a mere stakeholder who
solicits the assistance of the court in order to avoid potentially
inconsistent liabilities.” See 4 James Wm. Moore et al., MOORE’S
FEDERAL PRACTICE § 22.02 (3d ed. 2006)). The stakeholderplaintiff names as defendants those who are potential claimants to the
stake. See id. Typically, the defendants are not antagonistic to the
plaintiff but, rather, are pitted against one another. …. [I]n an
interpleader action in which the stakeholder does not assert a claim to
the stake, the stakeholder should be dismissed immediately following
its deposit of the stake into the registry of the court. See, e.g., Comm’l
Union Ins. Co. v. United States, 999 F.2d 581, 583 (D.C. Cir. 1993).
Hudson Savs. Bank v. Austin, 479 F.3d 102, 107 (1st Cir. 2007). Once the interpleader plaintiff
is dismissed, as MetLife has been in this case, what remains to be resolved are the respective
rights of the claimants to the stake. While the claimants nominally are defendants, the action
becomes a de facto suit between them. Id. at 107-08 (citing United States v. Palmer, 956 F.2d 3,
7 (1st Cir. 1992)). They are “at once [both] plaintiffs and defendants, [each] seeking a share of
the [stake] disputed by the other.” Hudson Savs. Bank, 479 F.3d at 108 (first alteration in
original) (quoting Palmer, 956 F.2d at 7).
In the usual case, “each claimant has the burden of establishing the right to the fund or
property by a preponderance of the evidence.” 7 Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Mary
Kay Kane, FEDERAL PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE § 1714, at 629 & n.21 (3d ed. 2001). But, in
cases where a party is claiming the proceeds of a life policy as against the originally named
beneficiary, as in this case, that party (here, Miner) has the burden of showing a valid change of
beneficiary. Finegan v. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 14 N.E.2d 172, 174 (Mass. 1938) (“The
amount due on the policies was payable to the plaintiff as the beneficiary named therein unless
the claimant was entitled to the whole, or a part thereof, by reason of assignments of the policies
… [and] [t]he burden of establishing its claim … was on the claimant.”); Kochanek v. Prudential
Ins. Co. of Am., 159 N.E. 520, 522 (Mass. 1928) (“The claimant has failed to sustain the burden
which was upon him to show a valid change of the beneficiary in the lifetime of the assured.”);
Garner v. Bemis, 87 So. 426, 427 (Fla. 1921). 6 Accord 7 Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller
& Mary Kay Kane, FEDERAL PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE § 1714, at 629 & n.21 (3d ed. 2001)
(citing Follenfant v. Rogers, 359 F.2d 30, 31 (5th Cir. 1966) (applying Texas law)). Thus, the
burden was on Miner to establish the validity of the Absolute Assignment.
Miner met her burden. The parties agree that Wright was competent in 2011 to make
end-of-life decisions. The preponderance of the evidence establishes that Wright initialed and
signed the Absolute Assignment in 2011, and thereby “assign[ed] ownership of the [P]olicy with
all rights, powers, interests, privileges, benefits, options, sums of money and all proceeds under
the [P]olicy” to Miner. Because Miner did not designate a different beneficiary, she also became
the primary beneficiary.
Under the facts of this case, there are two possible interested jurisdictions, Massachusetts and
Florida, presenting a possible choice-of-law issue. But, “[t]he first step in a choice of law
analysis is to determine whether an actual conflict exists between the substantive laws of the
interested jurisdictions, here, Massachusetts and [Florida].” Reicher v. Berkshire Life Ins. Co. of
Am., 360 F.3d 1, 4 (1st Cir. 2004). Massachusetts and Florida appear to be in agreement that the
burden under these circumstances is on the later designated beneficiary and, thus, there is no
The proceeds of the Policy issued by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, which have
previously been paid into this court, shall be paid, with accrued interest, to Susan Miner.
Judgment shall enter in Susan Miner’s favor, and the case shall be closed on the court’s docket.
Dated: April 18, 2017
/s/ Katherine A. Robertson
KATHERINE A. ROBERTSON
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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