Sometimes, like Detective Columbo, You have to Ask "Just One More
Question" -- A Case Study
By Dean D. Stein, CMA
This case involved an unusual “twist of fate”. A mother called us, when her son, age nine, was determined to be eligible for some insurance proceeds from his father, who had died a few months earlier. She discussed the case at length with us, and thought the case was only about setting up a conservatorship, so she could collect these funds, about $69,000, for her son. Had it not been for the insurance company requiring her to set up a conservatorship to receive these funds for her son, we probably would have never met. We began working on setting up the conservatorship. In the process, we asked the insurance company for a copy of the beneficiary designation, as mom had never married dad, and we might need it for evidence to later show dad had held this child out as his son, if in fact, he designated the relationship of "son" on the beneficiary form.
Upon receiving the beneficiary form, we gave it careful inspection to see what relationship the deceased father, known as the decedent, had indicated. In looking at the beneficiary designation form, we determined that another insurance policy for accidental death was out there and no one had mentioned it. This previously undiscovered policy was for over $200,000, and nobody had even bothered to tell our client it even existed! We then assisted our client in making a claim for that policy also. During our initial meeting, mom probably felt like we asked “too many” questions. But one of the last, and maybe the most important, was when we asked how dad had died. No matter how many times it happens like this, the answer was still a surprise. You see, dad died in an auto accident. Not just an auto accident, but a single car accident. Now often times, you may stop when you hear that it was a single car accident, because to recover in a injury or wrongful death suit, you must have another party with liability for your injury or death. That is when “one more question” can become so important. Sadly, dad had hit an animal in the road on his way to work, throwing his car off the road. Now, that, in and of itself, may not have been enough to establish liability, but tragically, the car erupted in flames, and dad who was pinned in the car died from the resulting burns.
Upon hearing this, we told mom that a wrongful death suit should be evaluated and considered. We then looked for pending suits in Alabama, and lo and behold, we found a law firm had filed a wrongful death suit in the matter, and again, no one had notified the child's mother, because the father's side, did not recognize this child, and opened the estate without him! We then filed to have the child recognized in the estate that had brought the suit, and in the end, entered a settlement, where the child shared in one-half of the $475,000 from the wrongful death suit! From a call that was supposed to be about only handling a simple conservatorship for one $69,000 insurance policy, turned into a situation where we were able to assist the child in receiving substantially more. We would like to think in part this was from our being attentive to the details of our cases, and thinking to ask "just one more question".
This article is generally based on Alabama law, the law of your state can vary widely. This is not intended to constitute, nor should be taken by you as legal advice and is not intended and does not create an attorney/client relationship.
Dean Stein, CMA, is an attorney who has a Masters degree in business and is a Certified Management Accountant (CMA).