Woytas v. Greenwood Tree Experts, Inc., No. A-1029-16T1, 2018 WL 3404123 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. July 13, 2018)

Woytas v. Greenwood Tree Experts, Inc., No. A-1029-16T1, 2018 WL 3404123 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. July 13, 2018).

Plaintiff was the surviving widow of decedent and the administrator of his estate. The adverse party was the decedent’s ex-wife.  The marital separation agreement with the ex-wife required the decedent to maintain life insurance policies naming their children and the ex-wife as beneficiaries.  The decedent obtained the required insurance, and subsequently married plaintiff.  The decedent thereafter obtained another life insurance policy naming plaintiff as beneficiary.   Plaintiff claimed the decedent obtained the policy to support her and her children from a prior marriage.  The decedent committed suicide and died intestate. The ex-wife received benefits from a policy obtained prior to the divorce, but the insurer declined to pay on the other policies based on two-year suicide exclusions.  Another insurer similarly declined to pay benefits to plaintiff.

The trial court granted summary judgment to the ex-wife, ruling that her claim had priority but finding the estate insolvent. The question of whether suicide constitutes a breach of a marital separation agreement was an issue of first impression.  The trial court held that the decedent was obligated to maintain life insurance, and by committing suicide, he breached that obligation. Id. at *7-8.  The court relied on the case of Tintocalis v. Tintocalis, 25 Cal. Rptr. 2d 655, 658-59 (Cal. Ct. App. 1993), wherein the court held that the order to maintain life insurance carries the obligation not to do anything that would interfere with the benefits being paid thereunder. Id. at *8-9.  Further, the court relied on the New Jersey Supreme Court’s explanation that the purpose of New Jersey’s life insurance provision, N.J.S.A. 2A:34-25, is to ensure a sufficient fund of the payor spouse’s support obligation should he or she die before fulfilling that responsibility.

Thus, the trial court found the decedent breached the marital separation agreement when he failed to maintain the requisite life insurance policies by committing suicide. To hold otherwise would permit the decedent to evade his support obligations, contrary to the legislature’s intent in enacting N.J.S.A. 2A:34-25. Id. at *9.  The Appellate Division affirmed the ruling that the decedent’s suicide constituted a failure to maintain life insurance, and that the decedent’s children were entitled to the full policy benefits.