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Justices rule for first time on FEGLIA preemption issue

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In a dispute between two ex-wives over the life insurance policy of their deceased husband, the Indiana Supreme Court has ordered the trial court determine how much money each woman is entitled to.

Carlos Hardy was married to Phyllis Hardy when he held a life insurance policy issued as part of a federal employee benefit plan. When they divorced in 1998, the divorce decree and property settlement required Carlos Hardy to maintain the life insurance policy and designated Phyllis Hardy and their two grandchildren as equal beneficiaries. Carlos Hardy later married Mary Jo Hardy and changed his beneficiary to her and increased his coverage. They divorced after several years of marriage.

When Carlos Hardy died, a dispute arose over who was entitled to the life insurance proceeds. The trial court determined that the Federal Employees’ Group Life Insurance Act preempted Phyllis Hardy’s equitable state law claims and the proceeds belonged to Mary Jo Hardy. The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed.

The high court had never addressed whether FEGLIA preempts equitable state law claims; other jurisdictions have split over the decision. But the Indiana justices decided that FEGLIA doesn’t preempt equitable state law claims to recover FEGLIA proceeds that have been paid in accordance with FEGLIA’s provisions and the regulations promulgated under it. A different conclusion would run afoul of the strong presumption against preemption in this traditional area of state regulation, wrote Justice Steven David in Phyllis Hardy, Alax Keith Furnish and Megan Jessica Furnish, by next friend Phyllis Hardy v. Mary Jo Hardy, No. 51S01-1106-PL-366.

“We agree that FEGLIA and the regulations promulgated under it control who holds legal title to the proceeds. But we see nothing in the preemption clause that precludes equitable state law claims. To interpret the preemption clause as preventing the imposition of a constructive trust extends the clause’s scope beyond its plain language,” he wrote.

The justices also decided that Ridgway v. Ridgway, 454 U.S. 46 (1981), did not support the conclusion that FEGLIA precludes a court from imposing a constructive trust on life insurance proceeds, as Mary Jo Hardy argued.

“Ultimately, the lack of an anti-attachment provision within FEGLIA, the divergent purposes underscoring FEGLIA and SGLIA, and the 1998 amendment to section 8705 of FEGLIA compel us to conclude that Ridgway is not controlling here,” David wrote.

The justices held the divorce decree and property settlement agreement undoubtedly entitle Phyllis and the grandchildren to whatever the death benefit under Option A would have been at the date of Carlos’ death, as Carlos had to “maintain” his policy for the benefit of Phyllis and the grandchildren. Mary Jo Hardy argued that she should be entitled to whatever amount accrued once she married Carlos Hardy. They remanded the issue to the trial court.

 

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