Decided November 12, 1987. Rehearing Denied December 17, 1987. Certiorari Denied April 11, 1988 (88SC13).
Appeal from the District Court of the City and County of Denver Honorable John Brooks, Jr., Judge
Raymond N. Satter, Harvey W. Curtis, for Plaintiff-Appellant.
Dill, Dill McAllister, Robert A. Dill, Tom French, for Defendants-Appellees.
Patricia Ann Seidlitz, the widow of Ernest D. Seidlitz (Seidlitz), filed an action seeking a declaratory judgment that she was entitled to the proceeds of two insurance policies on the life of her deceased husband. The court instead awarded the proceeds to Sandra K. Becker Eames, and Kenneth R. Becker (the Becker children) as contingent beneficiaries and successor-owners. Their mother, Katherine M. Becker (Katherine), had killed Seidlitz. Plaintiff appeals, and we affirm.
Before Seidlitz' death, Katherine had been involved in a fourteen and one-half year romantic relationship with him. During the course of this relationship, she purchased two life insurance policies on his life, both naming her as primary beneficiary. The applications asserted a debtor-creditor business type relationship between Seidlitz and Katherine. No issue of insurable interest is presented.
The policy dated October 24, 1974, had a cash value of $100,000 and named Katherine's estate as the contingent beneficiary. The policy of March 3, 1978, had a cash value of $50,000 and named the Becker children as contingent beneficiaries. The Becker children were successor-owners of both policies. Plaintiff had no knowledge of these policies.
Following the shooting death of Seidlitz in 1981, Katherine entered a guilty plea to second degree murder in his slaying, and she was sentenced for that crime. There is no contention that the Becker children were in any way involved in the murder.
Section 15-11-803(3), C.R.S., precludes Katherine from taking the proceeds of either policy. It states:
"A named beneficiary of a bond, life insurance policy, or other contractual arrangement who kills the principal obligee or the person upon whose life the policy is issued and, as a result thereof, is convicted of, pleads guilty to, or enters a plea of nolo contendere to the crime of murder in the first or second degree or manslaughter, as said crimes are defined in sections 18-3-102 to 18-3-104, C.R.S. 1973, is not entitled to any benefit under the bond, policy, or other contractual arrangement, and it becomes payable as though the killer had predeceased decedent." (emphasis supplied)
Accordingly, Katherine may not claim under either policy because she must be treated as having predeceased Seidlitz.
The trial court awarded the proceeds of both policies to the Becker children, both as contingent beneficiaries and as successor-owners. We find the latter basis for the award to be valid and, thus, find it unnecessary to determine the correctness of the trial court's award to the Becker children as contingent beneficiaries.
Prior to the murder, Katherine directed by way of "owner-designation forms" that the Becker children would be the owners of both policies if certain contingencies were met, namely:
"If Kay M. Becker dies before the Insured, then Kenneth R. and Sandra K. Becker, children of Kay M. Becker, or the survivor, will be the Owners."
And, each policy provided that "if no direct or contingent beneficiaries or further payees survive the Insured, the proceeds . . . shall be paid to the owners or their estate." Thus, by the clear language of § 15-11-803(3), C.R.S. and of the insurance policies, the trial court was correct in awarding the proceeds of the policies to the Becker children.
Contrary to plaintiff's argument, public policy does not require a different result. In Strickland v. Wysowatcky, 128 Colo. 221, 250 P.2d 199 (1952) the court noted that a statutory right cannot be defeated by the application of a common law principle. Quoting from Smith v. Greenburg, 121 Colo. 417, 218 P.2d 514 (1950), the court reiterated the concept that the General Assembly had preempted the field in its declaration of the public policy of the State in the statute.
In Strickland v. Wysowatcky, supra, a statute prevented a person convicted of murder in the first or second degree from taking the property of one he had killed. A husband, convicted of voluntary manslaughter in having caused the death of his wife, sought to inherit his wife's estate that consisted entirely of insurance proceeds. The court held that the General Assembly had already fixed the standards and rules to be applied, had declared the public policy of the State, and therefore found itself barred from applying common law principles and judicially interpreting the statute so as to prevent the husband from inheriting his wife's estate. See also Smith v. Greenburg, supra, and Walton v. Walton, 86 Colo. 1, 278 P. 780 (1929).
Similarly, if we were to engraft onto § 15-11-803(3), C.R.S., a prohibition against the innocent progeny of a murderer receiving, as owners, the proceeds of an insurance policy on the life of the murder victim, we would be indulging in prohibited judicial legislation. Moreover, in no way would public policy be served by rewriting or ignoring the provisions of the statute and of the insurance policies for the benefit of the plaintiff, who paid none of the premiums, and was not in any way designated as a beneficiary or successor owner of the policies. Nor would public policy be served by denying recovery to the Becker children who have no culpability in the murder.
JUDGE BABCOCK concurs.
JUDGE TURSI dissents.