The recent unpublished opinion of the Minnesota Court of Appeals in Hall v. Reynolds, No. A17-1095, 2018 WL 700191 (Minn. App. Feb. 5, 2018) provides a lesson in how life insurance provisions in divorce decrees are enforced by district courts. In Hall, the decedent was ordered in his divorce decree to name his ex-wife as sole beneficiary of a $100,000 life insurance policy. However, he named his mother, and later his fiancée as primary beneficiary of both of his life insurance policies in violation of the decree. After he passed away, his fiancée received proceeds from the policies totaling $530,412.22 and his ex-wife brought an action for a constructive trust claiming unjust enrichment. After the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the fiancée, the ex-wife appealed to the court of appeals, which reversed the district court. The court of appeals held that an obligor’s violation of a court-ordered obligation to maintain life insurance in a specific amount is enough to impose a constructive trust or to claw back insurance proceeds when a court-ordered beneficiary does not receive the amount or policy to which they are entitled. In addition, the court of appeals, citing Head v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. 449 N.W. 2d 449 (Minn. App. 1989) and Thiebault v. Thiebault, 421 N.W. 2d 747 (Minn. App. 1988), held that the ex-wife could claim an amount in excess of the child support remaining to be paid because the decree’s requirement of a $100,000 policy controlled how much was due.
While reviewing this decision, I read up on other decisions relating to the issue of life insurance and marital dissolution proceedings, and what follow are some useful practice tips and questions based on Hall v. Reynolds and these other decisions
The Minnesota Supreme Court has issued an important decision which will significantly alter how district courts handle petitions for orders for protection (OFPs). In Thompson v. Schrimsher, No. A16-0378, 2018 WL 627092 (Minn. Jan. 31, 2018), the Supreme Court reversed the Minnesota Court of Appeals, holding that a party petitioning for an order for protection does not have to show present harm, or an intent on the part of a respondent to do present harm. This decision overrules court of appeals’ precedent that is more than thirty years old, such as Kass v. Kass, 355 N.W.2d 335 (Minn. App. 1984) and Bjergum v. Bjergum, 392 N.W.2d 604, 606 (Minn. App. 1986). Minnesota Statutes Section 518B.01, subdivision 2(a) defines domestic abuse as meaning the following acts committed by a family or household member against a family or household member: “(1) physical harm, bodily injury, or assault; the infliction of fear of harm of imminent physical harm, bodily injury or assault; or (3) terroristic threats…; criminal sexual conduct…; or interference with an emergency call….” The Supreme Court reasoned that lack of temporal (i.e, time-conditioning) language in subdivision 2(a)(1)’s reference to physical harm, bodily injury, or assault means that the legislature did not intend to require petitioners to show that the risk of harm was immediate or imminent in order to obtain an OFP. Thompson v. Schrimsher, at *8. Thus, a finding of past domestic abuse alone is sufficient to support the issuance of an OFP without the need to show a present intent to cause or inflict fear of imminent physical harm. Id.
The respondent in Thompson v. Schrimsher had argued that eliminating the requirement that physical harm be “present” or “immediate” would increase the risk of district courts issuing OFPs based on single, isolated incidents of domestic abuse occurring in the distant past. The Supreme Court stated that the respondent was overstating the risk, noting that district courts were not required to issue OFPs and that they had discretion to deny an OFP even when domestic abuse had in fact occurred. Id at *9. The Supreme Court noted that district courts should examine all relevant circumstances in deciding whether to grant an OFP, “includ[ing], but…not limited to, the timing, frequency, and severity of any alleged circumstances of ‘domestic abuse’, along with the likelihood of further abuse.” Id. The Supreme Court also noted that subdivision 7(a) of section 518B.01 requires a petitioner to allege an immediate and present danger of domestic abuse before an OFP can be granted ex parte. Id at *7.
As a result of Thompson v. Schrimsher, a petitioner seeking an OFP will no longer be unduly handicapped by the fact that the alleged abuse occurred, for example, more than six months prior to the filing of their petition. By the same token, a respondent will face an increased risk that their defense against an OFP will be unsuccessful. Also, given the language in Thompson v. Schrimsher about judicial discretion, there are increased risks that OFPs will not be granted even if the district court finds that domestic abuse occurred. Parties, attorneys and judicial personnel will need to take to heart the Thompson court’s guidance about considering the timing, frequency and severity of the alleged abuse, and likelihood of further abuse. OFP proceedings will become more uncertain, and attorneys and parties will have to factor that uncertainty into their decisionmaking.