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IDA M. FULKROAD AND CARL F. BONAWITZ v. FRANCES A. RUNKLE OFAK (07/29/83)

filed: July 29, 1983.

IDA M. FULKROAD AND CARL F. BONAWITZ, ADMINISTRATORS OF THE ESTATE OF WARREN D. BONAWITZ, DECEASED, APPELLANTS,
v.
FRANCES A. RUNKLE OFAK



No. 14 Harrisburg, 1982, Appeal from the Order of the Court of Common Pleas, Civil, Dauphin County, No. 4034 of 1980, Action in Equity.

COUNSEL

Gregory M. Kerwin, Harrisburg, for appellants.

Don A. Leatherman, Harrisburg, for appellee.

Cercone, President Judge, and Wickersham and Montemuro, JJ.

Author: Montemuro

[ 317 Pa. Super. Page 202]

The sole question for our review on this appeal is whether an adjudicated incompetent may execute a valid beneficiary designation for group life insurance benefits. Appellants, Ida M. Fulkroad and Carl F. Bonawitz, administrators of the estate of Warren D. Bonawitz, deceased, contend that the lower court erred in failing to void the designation under 20 Pa.C.S.A. § 5524, notwithstanding the court's de facto determination that the deceased was competent at the time he named the beneficiary.

The deceased, Warren D. Bonawitz, was adjudicated incompetent*fn1 on August 11, 1954. He was placed in the Harrisburg State Hospital where he remained until his discharge on January 24, 1970. During his sixteen year stay in the hospital, the deceased was befriended by the appellee, Mrs. Ofak, who was employed as a nurse's aide at the time. On July 6, 1970, the deceased was employed by the Brubaker Tool Corporation in Millersburg, Pennsylvania. On August 20, 1970, the deceased designated the appellee as the beneficiary on his group life insurance policy. The deceased worked at the Brubaker plant until his death on April 18, 1980. He was never adjudicated competent.*fn2

The proceeds from the deceased's group life insurance policy were paid to the appellee in the amount of $4,000.00. The appellants filed a petition in equity in the Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County, asking that court to void the beneficiary designation executed by the deceased on the ground that 20 Pa.C.S.A. § 5524 rendered the deceased legally incapable, as an incompetent, to make "any contract or gift or any instrument in writing." The lower court recognized that a literal application of this statute would seemingly dictate a result consistent with the appellants' argument. However, the lower court declined to construe the statute in this manner. Instead, the court believed that

[ 317 Pa. Super. Page 203]

"the designation of a revocable beneficiary on a life insurance policy should be judged by the same principles as the writing of a will" (lower court opinion at 6) and basically agreed with the appellee's argument that under In Re Lanning's Estate, 414 Pa. 313, 200 A.2d 392 (1964) and In Re Mohler's Estate, 343 Pa. 299, 22 A.2d 680 (1941), ". . . despite the statutory provision, an adjudication of mental incapacity prior to the execution of a will does not command the conclusion that such a will is invalid and when a testator has been adjudged incompetent, it merely shifts the burden to the proponents of a will to prove testamentary capacity." (Lower court opinion at 6.)

Our review on appeal from a decree entered by the Orphans' Court is extremely limited. We can modify a decree "only if the findings on which it rests are not supported by competent or adequate evidence or if there has been an error of law, an abuse of discretion, or a capricious disbelief of competent or credible evidence." In re Estate of Hastings, 479 Pa. 122, 130, 387 A.2d 865, 869 (1978).

Section 5524 provides in pertinent part:

An incompetent shall be incapable of making any contract or gift or any instrument in writing after he is adjudged incompetent and before he is ...


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