By Fredrick P. Niemann, Esq. of Hanlon Niemann & Wright, a Freehold, NJ Estate Administration and Probate Litigation Attorney

I concluded Part 2 of this series by introducing you to the court’s discussion of a “Constructive Trust” and the alleged unjust enrichment of the Transfer on Death (TOD) beneficiaries. Let’s begin Part 3 with a continuation of the Court’s analysis.

The imposition of a constructive Trust serves as a remedy to rectify the unjust enrichment of a party, said the Court, but first plaintiff must establish a claim of unjust enrichment.   To prove unjust enrichment, a plaintiff must establish: (1) defendant received a benefit; (2) defendant knew about or appreciated the benefit; and (3) the defendant accepted or retained the benefit under circumstances where it was inequitable for defendant to do so.

In this case, the TOD beneficiaries acknowledge they received benefits, namely the proceeds from decedent’s Ameriprise accounts, and knew about or appreciated those benefits.  Therefore, the first two elements of unjust enrichment were found to exist.  But read what comes next from the court.

The third element of unjust enrichment required the Court to recognize an inequitable result.  Here the Trustee argued the TOD beneficiaries were unjustly enriched because decedent did not intend the Ameriprise accounts to be distributed as specified in the TOD designations therefore, a constructive trust should be imposed over the proceeds from the Ameriprise accounts.

Unfortunately in this case, said the court, the decedent was free to change his mind and, for some reason decided not to transfer the Ameriprise accounts.  Therefore, based on the facts of the case, the Trustee couldn’t establish the third unjust enrichment element because the TOD beneficiaries did not accept or retain the proceeds from the Ameriprise accounts under inequitable circumstances.

The Court stated the policy reasons for rejecting such an argument:

“The plaintiff in this case is arguing that in effect the person entitled to the proceeds of the policy is whoever the decedent intended it to be, even if not the named beneficiary.   It requires little imagination to envision the mischief that would be caused by the adoption of such a rule.  Disputes among friends, relatives, and heirs of the decedent would be a regular occurrence.   Insurance companies presumably (would) invariably deposit the proceeds in Court because they could not rely on their records.   The adoption of such a rule, in the long run, would be detrimental to the administration of justice, as it would be if permitted in the case of Wills or land transfers.” This to me is a powerful and logical analysis.

It should also be observed that we are not dealing with a situation in which the decedent took some action within his power to effectuate his alleged intention(s).   The problem was caused by the decedent’s own carelessness.  It would have been a simple matter for him to determine who was, in fact, to be the beneficiary of the accounts.  The result may be unfortunate, but that result alone no more furnishes justification for the Court to intervene than it would in the case of errors of Judgment or frustrated expectations in the case of contracts generally.

Although decedent may have intended to transfer the proceeds from the Ameriprise accounts into the Trust, he did not.  Decedent notified the Trustee that he would make the transfers himself and it is unknown why he did not make them.  The aforementioned statutory provisions, which specifically allow for contracts between the owner of an account and the registering entity, supported the Court’s conclusion that the TOD beneficiaries were not unjustly enriched.   The Trustee was found not entitled to an equitable remedy.

CONCLUSION

The Court correctly concluded that decedent’s TOD designations controlled the distribution of the proceeds from the Ameriprise accounts on decedent’s death.   The allegations in the Trustee’s complaint failed to state a claim of unjust enrichment upon which relief could be granted and the Court correctly dismissed it.

To discuss your NJ Estate Administration and Probate Litigation matter, please contact Fredrick P. Niemann, Esq. toll-free at (855) 376-5291 or email him at fniemann@hnlawfirm.com.  Please ask us about our video conferencing consultations if you are unable to come to our office.