While traditionally in Florida the proceeds from a life insurance police are exempt from the claims of a creditor, what happens if the beneficiary designations fail or the proceeds are directed back to an individuals probate estate or revocable trust?
In a recent Florida case, life insurance benefits were directed to the descendants revocable trust upon his death. This could have only happened intentionally unless a revocable trust was the owner and the beneficiary designation failed because it was improper or the beneficiary died before the grantor of the trust.
When the grantor of the trust died, the trusts instructions told the successor trustee to pay the settlor’s death obligations. Even if such language was not in the decedent’s revocable trust, they are presumed under Florida Law.
Normally under Florida Statute 222.13(1) Whenever any person residing in the state shall die leaving insurance on his or her life, the said insurance shall inure exclusively to the benefit of the person for whose use and benefit such insurance is designated in the policy, and the proceeds thereof shall be exempt from the claims of creditors of the insured unless the insurance policy or a valid assignment thereof provides otherwise.
While the mere fact that life insurance proceeds are payable to a trust, rather than directly to a natural person, does not deprive them of their exempt status,4 section 733.808(1), Florida Statutes (2008), makes it clear that life insurance proceeds payable to a trust “shall be held and disposed of by the trustee in accordance with the terms of the trust as they appear in writing on the date of the death of the insured.”
The court stated that In other words, the exemption rendering life insurance policy proceeds unavailable to satisfy estate obligations can be waived. The very statute that creates the exemption makes this clear:
Notwithstanding the foregoing, whenever the insurance, by designation or otherwise, is payable to the insured or to the insured’s estate or to his or her executors, administrators, or assigns, the insurance proceeds shall become a part of the insured’s estate for all purposes and shall be administered by the personal representative of the estate of the insured in accordance with the probate laws of the state in like manner as other assets of the insured’s estate.
§ 222.13(1), Fla. Stat. (2008). Section 222.13(1) does not prohibit life insurance proceeds’ paying the insured’s estate’s debts and other “death obligations,” nor does it prohibit directing payment of policy benefits to a trust for that purpose.
An insurance policy is a contract. The right to select the beneficiary of a life insurance policy is an aspect of the freedom to contract. The statutory exemption does not purport to restrict that freedom. The owner of an insurance policy may waive the section 222.13 exemption merely by designating the insured or one or more of the insured’s creditors as a beneficiary or beneficiaries, by naming the insured’s estate as a beneficiary of the policy or, as here, by naming as beneficiary a trust whose terms direct distribution of the trust assets to the personal representative, if requested.
In this case, there was an attempt to reform the trust under FL statute 736 but his requires clear and convincing evidence that both the accomplishment of the settlor’s intent and the terms of the trust were affected by a mistake of far or law.
In this case they were unable to prove the intent necessary to reform the trust.
If you have a life insurance policy or a revocable trust in Florida you may want to review the terms of the beneficiary designations as well as what the policy directs the successor trustee to pay. It was unfortunate that the life insurance policy became subject to claims of the creditors because of the poor choice of wording.