The Federal Court recently considered an application by Challenger Life for relief under section 215.
The Life Insurance Act 1 allows a life company to pay money in relation to a disputed claim into court. This is a very useful provision where a life insurer is faced with competing claims and the prospects of settlement have been exhausted. The payment into court releases the insurer from any further liability under the policy in relation to the money. The court has a broad discretion to deal with the disputed monies.
Who does this impact?
- Simple and cost effective circuit breaker for competing claims under policies that won't settle
- Concept of policy includes life policies, sinking fund policies, a section 12A or section 12B policy
The Intractable Dispute
The Federal Court recently considered an application by Challenger Life for relief under section 2152.
The utility of Section 215
Section 215 is a useful provision to which a life company can turn in the event it has reached the view that it will not be able to obtain a sufficient discharge when paying the proceeds of a policy despite reasonable efforts. For example, a life insurer may be faced with competing claims from potential beneficiaries relating to an estate or third parties claiming an entitlement to the proceeds of a policy.
The application under s215 is quite simple. The initiating application by the life company is filed with a supporting affidavit and documents demonstrating the basis on which Section 215 is enlivened. The payment of the proceeds of a policy into court discharges any further liability under the policy in relation to the money and so brings legal certainty for the insurer.
After this, the role of the insurer is complete and it becomes a matter for the interested parties claiming an entitlement to the proceeds of the policy, to argue their cases. Depending on the complexity of the issues involved, the application by the insurer can be dealt with relatively quickly.
In this case, Challenger Life, made an application in the Federal Court to pay the proceeds of a guaranteed annuity policy into court where it had exhausted all reasonable efforts to settle disputed claims between beneficiaries.
The deceased had taken out a Challenger guaranteed annuity policy under which he had purported to nominate his estate and an individual beneficiary to share in the proceeds of the annuity in the event of his death. Unfortunately the policyholder died before the end of the term of the annuity and Challenger sought to pay the proceeds of the annuity to the nominated parties. A question arose as to the proper construction of the annuity policy and nomination of beneficiary form and whether the selection made by the deceased was available to him.
Separately, a family member of the deceased brought a family provisioning claim and Challenger became caught in a dispute between the various beneficiaries to the estate such that it could not settle payment under the annuity policy otherwise than by invoking the jurisdiction of the Federal Court under section 215 of the Life Insurance Act.
In considering the application, the court reviewed whether or not the terms of the policy, product disclosure statement and nomination form, permitted the policy holder to nominate the beneficiary in the manner chosen3. Predictably, each party claiming entitlement to the proceeds of the annuity argued for a different contractual construction to be applied to the policy.
In reviewing the terms of the policy, the Federal Court affirmed the principle that a contract is to be construed objectively and the meaning of the words determined by what a reasonable person in the position of the parties would have understood the words to mean4. It found that the alternatives that were offered as to how a policy holder may nominate a beneficiary under the policy were not exclusive. In recognising the context of the contract: namely a standard form policy document entered into with ordinary members of the public wishing to invest the money in annuities, the Federal Court held that the contract should not be given an overly legalistic, narrow or pedantic construction5.
The election made by the deceased was upheld and the court made orders accordingly including awarding Challenger its costs of the application and making orders that on payment of the proceeds of the annuity into court, Challenger was discharged from all further liability in relation to payment under the policy.