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2009-UP-261 - Cowart v. Helms

THIS OPINION HAS NO PRECEDENTIAL VALUE.  IT SHOULD NOT BE CITED OR RELIED ON AS PRECEDENT IN ANY PROCEEDING EXCEPT AS PROVIDED BY RULE 268(d)(2), SCACR.

THE STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA
In The Court of Appeals

United of Omaha Insurance Company, Plaintiff

v.

Elaine Helms and Linda R. Cowart, Defendants,

Linda R. Cowart, Cross Plaintiff

v.

Elaine Helms, Cross Defendant,

Of whom Linda R. Cowart is the, Appellant,

and

Elaine Helms is the, Respondent.


Appeal From Horry County
Honorable Thomas A. Russo, Circuit Court Judge


Unpublished Opinion No.   2009-UP-261
Submitted May 1, 2009 – Filed June 1, 2009
Withdrawn, Substituted and Refiled August 25, 2009


AFFIRMED


E. Windell McCrackin, of Myrtle Beach, for Appellant.

Elaine Helms, of Lancaster, pro se.

PER CURIAM: Linda Cowart (Cowart) appeals the circuit court’s determination Elaine Helms is entitled to the benefits of William Cowart’s life insurance policy (the Policy).  We affirm. [1]

Omaha Life Insurance (Omaha) issued William B. Cowart (decedent) the Policy in the amount of $30,000.  Decedent was the named applicant.  Originally, Cowart, decedent’s wife, was the named beneficiary under the Policy.  However, decedent later executed a change of beneficiary form, naming Helms, his sister, the beneficiary.  Following decedent’s death, Omaha filed an interpleader action, requesting permission to deposit the  proceeds from the Policy with the Horry County clerk of court.  After a hearing, the circuit court determined decedent, as owner of the Policy, executed a proper change of beneficiary and Helms is entitled to the Policy proceeds. We find the circuit court properly determined from the Policy language decedent was the owner of the Policy and Helms is entitled to the Policy proceeds. 

Insurance policies are subject to general rules of contract construction and courts must enforce, not write, contracts of insurance and must give policy language its plain, ordinary, and popular meaning.  Fritz-Pontiac-Cadillac-Buick v. Goforth, 312 S.C. 315, 318, 440 S.E.2d 367, 369 (1994) “[T]he terms of an insurance policy must be construed most liberally in favor of the insured and where the words of a policy are ambiguous or where they are capable of two reasonable interpretations that construction will be adopted which is most favorable to the insured.”  Garrett v. Pilot Life Ins. Co., 241 S.C. 299, 304, 128 S.E.2d 171, 174 (1962).   The right to change the beneficiary may be reserved by the language of the policy itself.  Waters v. S. Farm Bureau Life Ins. Co., 365 S.C. 519, 523-24, 617 S.E.2d 385, 387-88 (Ct. App. 2005)

Cowart argues she is the owner of the Policy, and therefore, decedent’s change of beneficiary form is invalid, making her entitled to the Policy proceeds.  The Policy defines “owner” as “(a) the Insured, (b) the applicant if a person other than the Insured applied for this policy, or (c) the assignee of record in the case of an assignment of ownership.”[2]  The Policy language itself reserves the right of the insured to change the beneficiary.  The beneficiary under the Policy named in the application “may be changed as described” in the Policy unless the owner states it is irrevocable.  A change in beneficiary under the Policy must be made in writing and is effective the date the owner signs the request once it is “recorded and acknowledged by [Omaha.]” 

Here, decedent is both the insured and the applicant on the Policy.  Additionally, his signature appears on the application form.  Furthermore, the change of beneficiary form bears decedent’s signature as the Policy owner.  As owner of the Policy, decedent executed a proper change of beneficiary form which effectively changed the beneficiary from Cowart to Helms.  Consequently, at the time of decedent’s death, Helms was the recorded beneficiary.  Therefore, the circuit court did not err in determining decedent was the owner of the Policy and in finding Helms, not Cowart, was entitled to Policy’s benefits. 

AFFIRMED.

HUFF, PIEPER, and GEATHERS, JJ., concur.


[1] We decide this case without oral argument pursuant to Rule 215, SCACR.

[2] Cowart does not argue there was an assignment of ownership.