United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division
WILLIAM H. STEELE, Chief District Judge.
This matter comes before the Court on Ursula Allen's Motion for Summary Judgment (doc. 31). The Motion has been briefed and is now ripe.
I. Factual Background.
The circumstances giving rise to this interpleader action are unfortunate. Back in December 2005, decedent Ulysses Allen applied for and received an Individual Fixed Deferred Annuity bearing contract number FX07102989 (the "Annuity") from John Hancock Life Insurance Company ("John Hancock"). (Doc. 31, Exh. 8.) On the application form, Ulysses Allen unambiguously designated the Annuity's beneficiary as "Estate." ( Id. )
On or about August 22, 2011, Ulysses Allen's daughter Ursula C. Allen ("Ms. Allen") filed a Petition for Appointment of Temporary Guardian in Mobile County Probate Court, characterizing Ulysses Allen as "an incapacitated person" who was "currently a patient at the Mobile Infirmary Medical Center West, Intensive Care Unit." (Doc. 44, Exh. 1.) Ms. Allen represented to the Probate Court that her father "lacks the ability to make any major life decisions or the capacity to protect himself" and "is incapable of settling or filing a lawsuit or managing his health and financial affairs." ( Id. ) Ms. Allen specifically alleged to the Probate Court that "a temporary Guardian is needed to protect [Ulysses Allen] from exploitation." ( Id. ) Further, Ms. Allen reasoned that "[a] temporary Guardian is needed to provide for [Ulysses Allen]'s care and manage his financial affairs, " and requested appointment for those duties. ( Id. ) The next day, Probate Judge Don Davis entered an Order Appointing Temporary Guardian, finding that "Ulysses Allen is in need of protective arrang[e]ments" and appointing Ms. Allen as her father's temporary guardian "for a period not to exceed fifteen (15) days." (Doc. 44, Exh. 2.) On its face, this temporary 15-day appointment was to expire no later than September 7, 2011.
In a filing to the Social Security Administration on or about September 1, 2011, Ms. Allen asked that she be made "representative payee" for Ulysses Allen's Social Security benefits. In connection with that application, Ms. Allen declared under penalty of perjury that Ulysses Allen "is not mentally and physically [able] to take care of himself" and that he "needs a payee because he has a mental impairment." (Doc. 44, Exh. 3.)
On September 2, 2011, during the period of her temporary guardianship and mere days after informing the Probate Court that her father "is incapable of... managing his health or financial affairs" and needs protection from "exploitation" in his "financial affairs, " Ms. Allen completed a "Change of Ownership and/or Beneficiary Form" (the "Change Form") for the John Hancock Annuity owned by Ulysses Allen. (This was also one day after Ms. Allen told the Social Security Administration under penalty of perjury that Ulysses Allen suffered from a "mental impairment" that necessitated his Social Security benefits to be paid out directly to her.) She then returned that Change Form to John Hancock. (Ursula Allen Aff. (doc. 44, Exh. 11), at 2.) The Change Form purported to have been signed by Ulysses Allen on September 2, 2011, and listed "Ursula C. Allen" as the new primary beneficiary of the Annuity, to receive 100% of the proceeds. (Doc. 44, Exh. 4.) The Annuity owner's signature was clearly worded "Ulysses Allen." ( Id. )
Several months later, on February 22, 2012, Ulysses Allen purportedly signed a one-page "Last Will and Testament" in the presence of two non-beneficiary witnesses. (Doc. 44, Exh. 16, at 8-9.) In that Will, Ulysses Allen purported to "give all the rest and residue of my estate to Carla L. Walker, " who is his granddaughter and the niece of Ursula Allen. ( Id. ) The Will purported to appoint Carla Walker ("Ms. Walker") "to act as the executor of this will." ( Id. ) Notably, the Will made no specific mention of the Annuity, and no reference whatsoever to Ms. Allen.
Ulysses Allen died of natural causes on June 11, 2013, at the age of 74. (Doc. 44, Exh. 5.) His death triggered a flurry of maneuvering by both Ms. Allen and Ms. Walker. On July 16, 2013, Ms. Allen sent a Beneficiary Claim Statement to John Hancock in which she requested electronic funds transfer of the Annuity proceeds to her bank account. (Doc. 31, Exh. 3.) For her part, Ms. Walker sent an undated letter to John Hancock indicating that Ms. Allen's claim for Annuity benefits was "fraudulent, " that Ms. Allen was "estranged" from Ulysses Allen and had "charges pending" against her "for theft of property and forgery of documents" in Ulysses Allen's name. (Doc. 31, Exh. 4.) On that basis, Ms. Walker demanded that John Hancock "[p]lease CEASE any claim distribution on the Annuity." ( Id. )
Contemporaneously, Ms. Walker submitted the February 2012 Last Will and Testament of Ulysses Allen to the Probate Court of Mobile County, Alabama. Ms. Allen reacted by filing a "Verified Complaint for Will Contest" in Probate Court on or about September 18, 2013. (Doc. 31, Exh. 6.) In that document (which Ms. Allen signed under oath), Ms. Allen averred as follows: (i) the February 2012 Will "was the product of the undue influence" of Ms. Walker; (ii) Ulysses Allen "was not mentally competent to execute a Will" in February 2012; (iii) Ulysses Allen "had a prior history of dementia" and had been manipulated by Ms. Walker into "refusing to communicate with [Ms. Allen] for the" last 20 months of his life ( i.e., from October 2011 through June 2013); (iv) during Ulysses Allen's 2011 hospitalization, Ms. Walker had attempted to gain "unrestricted access to the decedents bank accounts;" (v) "[s]ince prior to his several hospitalizations during 2011, the decedent lacked the mental capacity to execute a Will;" (vi) "the decedent was easily influenced by" others; and (vii) Ms. Walker had "obtained a Power of Attorney over the decedent" that she had then used "to withdraw funds from the decedent's bank account for her own use." ( Id. )
The present status of the will contest is not delineated in the summary judgment record, nor is there any forecast of when a disposition may be reached; however, both parties indicate that it remains ongoing and that no adjudication of the validity of the February 2012 Last Will and Testament of Ulysses Allen has yet been made. (Doc. 31-1, at 6; doc. 44, at 7.) What is known, however, is that on October 31, 2013, Mobile County Probate Judge Don Davis appointed Frank H. Kruse as "Special Administrator of the Estate of Ullar See Allen a/k/a Ulysses Allen, " with authority "to preserve, marshal and protect all assets of the estate." (Doc. 31, Exh. 7.)
In the meantime, John Hancock was left with the vexing problem of the competing claims by Ms. Allen and Ms. Walker to the Annuity benefits. So John Hancock availed itself of the mechanism created by Rule 22, Fed.R.Civ.P., by filing a Complaint in Interpleader (doc. 1), commencing this civil action in federal court. The Complaint, which joined Ms. Allen and Ms. Walker as defendants, spelled out their dispute over the Annuity benefits (as chronicled above) and requested leave to deposit said funds with the Clerk of Court pending adjudication of the defendants' respective rights to same. Both Ms. Allen and Ms. Walker, appearing by and through counsel, timely filed Answers. For her part, Ms. Allen claimed that, pursuant to the Change Form, she was "entitled to the entire balance of the funds from the annuity." (Doc. 7, ¶ 16.) By contrast, Ms. Walker stated in her Answer that the Change Form "was improperly executed, " that the signature on said form "was not the known signature of Ulysses Allen, " and that the original application form for the Annuity (in which Ulysses Allen designated the beneficiary as "Estate") was controlling. (Doc. 13, ¶¶ 15-16.) On that basis, Ms. Walker requested the interpleaded funds be "immediately disbursed to the Estate of Ulysses Allen." ( Id. )
Of some significance to the pending Rule 56 Motion, John Hancock's Complaint did not name the Estate of Ulysses Allen as a separate defendant. Both parties' counsel reached out to Frank Kruse, Special Administrator of the Estate, at various times to apprise him of the lawsuit and gauge his interest in participating. On October 9, 2014, Kruse sent an e-mail to Ms. Walker's attorney, summarizing his position as follows:
"My role is extremely limited as an Administrator ad Colligendum. I am more or less a caretaker of the status quo for the estate until it is decided whether the Will is to be probated or not. My understanding is that the decedent left an annuity as to which [Ms. Allen] is the named beneficiary. I understand that your client claims that the beneficiary designation is invalid, and if this is correct I understand the beneficiary will be the estate. Thus, it appears that the estate's interest is effectively being represented by your client. I have no personal knowledge of anything relative to the beneficiary designation and, thus, have nothing to add ...