Court Finds no Effort by Participant to Change Beneficiary before Suicide

September 26, 2011 ( – The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania has refused to deny life insurance benefits to the spouse of a participant who had filed for divorce, but then committed suicide.

Lisa Marie Mancuso’s brother, who had been granted guardianship of her son, claimed that, although failing to strictly comply with the change of beneficiary procedures under the employer-sponsored life insurance policy, Mancuso specifically intended and made every reasonable effort to change the beneficiary under her life insurance policy. However, citing a Federal Revenue Procedure, the court said that because the affidavit – presented in the form of an e-mail from Mancuso’s brother to a CIGNA representative – describing the steps Mancuso took to change the beneficiary to her life insurance policy is neither signed nor notarized, the court may not accept the facts set forth by its averments.  

The court also rejected the brother’s argument that prior to Mancuso’s death, grounds for divorce had been established in the pending divorce proceedings, meaning that the divorce court retains jurisdiction to equitably distribute all assets remaining in her estate. The court noted that under Pennsylvania law, even where a right to equitable distribution of marital property continues upon the death of one of the parties, the proceeds of a life insurance policy do not constitute marital property subject to such distribution.   

Finally, Mancuso’s brother asserted that because her spouse pushed her “to the despair that resulted in her suicide,” he should not be entitled to recover under Pennsylvania’s Slayer’s Act. The opinion noted that the Slayer’s Act provides, in pertinent part, that “[n]o slayer shall in any way acquire any property or receive any benefit as the result of the death of the decedent. . . .”   

But the court found that the brother simply alleges that Mancuso’s spouse “hounded her and harassed her and effectively pushed her to the despair that resulted in her suicide and should not be permitted to benefit thereby.” Nothing in the complaint describes what actions the spouse took to cause Mancuso’s death or whether such actions were both “wilful” and “unlawful,” as required by the law. Nor does the brother suggest that the spouse was ever accused, charged, or convicted of any such crime in connection with Mancuso’s death. Finally, the court said, the brother failed to cite to any jurisprudence finding that domestic or spousal harassment leading to suicide rises to the level of a “killing” as required by the Slayer’s Act.   

While not agreeing with his arguments, the district court granted Mancuso’s brother a period of twenty days in which to submit a Second Amended Complaint setting forth sufficient factual allegations supporting a plausible claim that Mancuso made every reasonable effort under the circumstances to change the beneficiary on the life insurance policy. “If an amendment is not forthcoming within that time or if Plaintiff expresses his desire to stand on his current Amended Complaint, an order of dismissal will be appropriate at that time,” the opinion stated.  

The case is Diener v. Renfrew Centers Inc.