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In Re: Estate of Michael Burklund v. Dorleen Burklund

January 28, 2013


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Goldberg, J.


This life insurance dispute emanates from a homicide in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, which resulted in the conviction of Dorleen Burklund for the shooting of her husband, Michael Burklund ("the deceased"). Plaintiff, Gabriel Burklund, the son of Dorleen and Michael Burklund, alleges that he is entitled to insurance proceeds under a life insurance and accidental death policy, issued by Defendant, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, Inc. (MetLife), on the life of his father. Defendant, Dean Burklund, the brother of the deceased and the executor of the deceased's estate ("the Estate"), challenges the distribution of these proceeds to Plaintiff under Pennsylvania's Slayer's Act, 20 Pa.C.S. §§ 8801-8815, and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA").

Before the Court is Plaintiff's second motion for summary judgment, which requests an order directing that the insurance proceeds be distributed to him by MetLife. For the reasons stated herein, we will grant Plaintiff's motion.


The deceased was a participant in a life insurance and accidental death plan through his employer, United Airways. The plan was issued by Defendant, MetLife, and provided for $149,000 in total coverage. Dorleen Burklund is named as primary beneficiary and Plaintiff is named as contingent beneficiary. (Doc. No. 21 at 2.)

On April 20, 2011, before her criminal trial, Dorleen Burklund appeared before Bucks County Court of Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey L. Finley regarding the status of her criminal counsel. Plaintiff was present for this proceeding, and through his counsel, informed Judge Finley that Dorleen Burklund was in the process of disclaiming her rights to the life insurance policy and that Plaintiff, as contingent beneficiary, planned to gift a portion of the proceeds to Dorleen Burklund so that she could retain a private criminal defense attorney. (Doc. No. 2, Exs. 1-3; Doc. No. 6, Ex. 1, Doc. No. 11, Ex. B.)

On May 2, 2011, the Estate sent correspondence to MetLife asserting that Plaintiff's "plan . . . violates the spirit, if not letter, of [Pennsylvania's] Slayer Act[.]" The correspondence also stated that the Estate was planning to seek an injunction in state court, "requesting that the proceeds of the life insurance policy be paid into the Trust established for the benefit of [Plaintiff] . . . under the last will and testament of Michael Burklund." (Doc. No. 2, Ex. 3.) In response, MetLife put an "administrative hold" on the disbursement of proceeds, which remains in effect. (Doc. No. 21 at 3.)

On May 19, 2011, Plaintiff filed an emergency injunction petition in the Court of Common Pleas, Bucks County, Orphan's Division, to prevent the Estate from interfering with the delivery of the insurance proceeds. On May 21, 2011, the Estate filed a cross petition for an injunction, seeking to prevent MetLife from distributing the funds until the dispute over the proceeds was resolved on the merits. On May 24, 2011, a hearing was held on these petitions before the Honorable C. Theodore Fritsch, Jr. There, Plaintiff testified that his mother had agreed to disclaim her interest in the deceased's life insurance policy after he informed her that he would use the proceeds to "pay out the sum that is required to give [her] private counsel." (Doc. No. 12, Ex. E, pp. 29-38.)

On June 29, 2011, Judge Fritsch denied Plaintiff's petition and granted the Estate's petition "in part insofar as [MetLife was] directed to maintain the status quo and refrain from disbursing life insurance proceeds . . . until further Order of the Court." (Doc. No. 12, Ex. F.) On July 12, 2011, Plaintiff filed a "Petition for Payment of Insurance Proceeds," in the Court of Common Pleas, Bucks County, Orphan's Division, naming MetLife, Dorleen Burklund and the Estate as Defendants. On July 22, 2011, Dorleen Burklund filed a pro se notice of removal regarding all state court proceedings, invoking federal question jurisdiction under ERISA. No party involved in this litigation objected to, or challenged, this removal. On August 15, 2011, MetLife filed an answer to Plaintiff's petition in this Court and raised claims of interpleader, requesting that Dorleen Burklund, Plaintiff and the Estate be ordered to settle this dispute "among themselves." On September 19, 2011, the Estate also filed an answer in this Court to Plaintiff's petition and MetLife's claim of interpleader. (Doc. Nos. 2, 6.)

On November 10, 2011, before the commencement of Dorleen Burklund's criminal trial, Plaintiff filed his first motion for summary judgment before this Court, asserting that he was entitled to receive the proceeds payable under the deceased's insurance policy, pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1104(a)(1)(D) of ERISA. Plaintiff contended that MetLife should be ordered to turn the proceeds over to him, because Dorleen Burklund had "disclaimed" her interest as primary beneficiary of the policy and that he was contingent beneficiary. (See Pl.'s Br., Doc. No. 10, at 4, 10-11.)

On January 3, 2012, this Court issued a Memorandum Opinion and Order denying Plaintiff's motion, finding that Dorleen Burklund's purported "disclaimer" of her interest was without legal effect. This ruling was premised on the representations made by Plaintiff before Judge Finley and the principles of Pennsylvania's Slayer's Act and the federal common law that has developed under ERISA. Specifically, we concluded that:

If Dorleen Burkland [sic] is convicted of the murder of her husband, she should not be entitled to the proceeds of his life insurance policy. Permitting Dorleen Burkland [sic] to "disclaim" her interest in these proceeds now, before her culpability can be determined, and allowing the distribution of these proceeds to a third party who has clear intentions to transfer part of these proceeds to her, undermines the principles underlying the Slayer's Act and federal common law. We thus conclude that MetLife should continue to hold the insurance proceeds at issue pending final resolution of Dorleen Burkland's [sic] homicide trial. (Mem. Op., Doc. No. 21 at 14.)

After Dorleen Burklund's first degree murder conviction, Plaintiff filed his second and current motion for summary judgment, which the Estate opposes. (Doc. Nos. 23, 24.) In support of the motion, Plaintiff has submitted an affidavit, indicating that he no longer intends to "spend any of the insurance proceeds on his ...

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