UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
February 20, 1950
UNITED STATES et al.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: MURPHY
The jury by its verdict for the plaintiff-wife found that the deceased soldier made a change of beneficiary in his National Service Life Insurance policy so as to substitute the name of his wife in place of that of his mother, herein the defendant.
Defendant, alleging the insufficiency and incompetency of the evidence, seeks (a) to set aside the verdict; (b) a new trial. We find no merit in either contention.
The jury was warranted in finding that: (a) The insured went to Group Headquarters, Army Air Base, Columbia, South Carolina, and asked the captain in charge for a form in order to change the name of the beneficiary of his government insurance from his mother to his wife; whereupon insured executed the form supplied and returned it to the officer in charge, who returned to the insured a duplicate copy of the completed form, and advised him to keep it in a safe place; (b) Insured made oral statements to fellow officers prior to, contemporaneous with and subsequent to the execution of such form, the latter in this country and abroad, making clear his intention to make such change and a state of mind indicating that he felt he had made the change desired; (c) After learning that his wife was expecting a child, insured told her he had already made the change of beneficiary in her favor: (d) As he was about to go overseas insured said in a letter to his wife, 'I am including a * * * paper explaining all about the insurance policy and the requirements for procuring the benefits * * *'; enclosed was a mimeographed form giving information as to how to collect the government insurance, gratuity pay, pensions, etc.; (e) During an interval between flying missions, five days before he was killed in action, insured in a letter told his wife, '* * * you have the papers to prove your identity and privilege to collect my insurance $ 10,000 and gratuity pay'.
Corroborating details were the remarriage of insured's mother after being designated beneficiary of the insurance; insured's execution of the following: (a) W.D.A.G.O. Form No. 41, naming his wife as beneficiary of his gratuity pay and the person to be notified in case of emergency; (b) a will making his wife beneficiary; (c) a power of attorney making her his agent; (d) authorization of a $ 225 pay allotment to his wife.
There was no evidence as to what particular form was used in making the change in insurance beneficiary or as to what disposition was made of the copies of the form given to the captain at headquarters. Neither the Adjutant General's office of the Army, nor the Veterans Administration had any record of any such paper, nor was there any evidence available as to what happened to the copy given to the insured. The Veterans Administration made payments to the mother but discontinued doing so when the wife filed her claim.
In the consideration of this type of government insurance controversy, each case must be decided in the light of its own facts. 'A liberal policy toward the serviceman and his named beneficiary is everywhere evident in the comprehensive statutory plan.' Wissner v. Wissner, 1950, 70 S. Ct. 398, 399, and see opinion Holmes J., White v. United States, 270 U.S. 175, 46 S. Ct. 274, 70 L. Ed. 530; Kaschefsky v. Kaschefsky, 6 Cir., 110 F.2d 836; Claffy v. Forbes, D.C., 280 F. 233, at page 235.
The cases are unanimous in holding that a mere intent to change the beneficiary is not enough. Such intent must be followed by some affirmative act on the part of the insured, evidencing an exercise of the right to change the beneficiary. Where the courts differ is as to the degree or nature of the affirmative action to effect such change. Literal compliance with the regulations is not required.
The questions raised are not novel but, on the contrary, have been the subject of many recent decisions, all of which would support recovery in the instant case. The subject is discussed in a comprehensive note in 2 A.L.R.2d 489. In Flood v. United States, 3 Cir., 172 F.2d 221, affirming D.C., 78 F.Supp. 420, and in Horn v. United States, 3 Cir., 1950, 179 F.2d 238, the Court of Appeals for this Circuit disposed of two appeals in this category by per curiam opinions. In the Flood case the fact situation was not as persuasive in support of recovery as the case at bar. There reliance was placed chiefly on a statement by insured in a letter to his wife, ' * * * the insurance is in your name only.' (172 F.2d 222) See comment thereon in Hart v. United States, D.C.N.J., 84 F.Supp. 912, at page 915. In Horn v. United States, supra, the court approved a finding by the trial judge that execution of Form No. 41 was sufficient to support recovery where it could be inferred that insured intended by so doing to change the beneficiary of his government insurance and believed that thereby he had done so.
In the case at bar there was abundant evidence of insured's intention to exercise his right to change the beneficiary and of affirmative action by him to see that such a change was effected. Delivery of the executed form given to the officer in charge of Group Headquarters was a ministerial act to be performed by the insurer. Under the circumstances the court will treat that as done which ought to have been done and give effect to the insured's desire.
As to the sufficiency of the evidence:
Recovery could be sustained by the proof of what occurred at Group Headquarters
and, independent thereof, in the light of the surrounding circumstances, upon the basis of the letter from Corsica.
As to the competency of the evidence:
We need refer only to the decision in Flood v. United States, supra; however, practically all of the cases have in some measure considered this phase of the problem. It may be of some help to group the several cases and their holdings.
For the foregoing reasons defendant's motions will be denied.