When we all think of insurance, we often think of medical insurance, car insurance and homeowner’s insurance as these seem to be the necessary and everyday types of insurance. Life insurance, which for some can be synonymous with high premiums, is one of the first costs to go when seeking to reduce your budget. I often find that the issue of life insurance is something that typically does not cross a person’s mind when they are getting divorced, whether they are the supporting spouse or the supported spouse, especially if the parties did not maintain life insurance during the marriage.
Often times however, when a supporting party has an ongoing alimony and/or child support obligation, a court may order (or the parties will agree) that a life insurance policy will continue (or be implemented) as a method of financially protecting a dependent party and/or child in the event of the supporting party’s premature death.
In other words, the same reasons an intact family would procure life insurance, remain after the divorce. All too often however, an obligation to maintain life insurance is the forgotten provision of a divorce settlement agreement in that either 1) it is noticeably absent from the agreement, or 2) it is not being maintained. Obviously, either of these scenarios is troublesome for the supported spouse and could ultimately cause substantial financial ruin should a situation that life insurance seeks to protect against come to fruition.
In the recent case of Ashmont v. Ashmont, Judge Lawrence Jones recently released an unpublished (non-precedential) yet persuasive opinion on how to deal with the issue of life insurance between divorced parties. In Ashmont, the parties’ Marital Settlement Agreement required that the wife would receive permanent alimony and child support for the parties’ children. In order to secure same, the parties agreed that the husband would carry life insurance as a means to protect against the loss of financial support in the event of an untimely death.
Several years after the parties were divorced, wife brought an enforcement action against the husband for a breach of their agreement for his failure to provide proof that he was maintaining life insurance as well as for sanctions for his past and alleged ongoing violations of his life insurance obligations. At the time of the hearing, husband admitted that he had been in violation of this obligation, but had recently brought himself into compliance by securing a new policy, consistent with the terms of the parties’ agreement.
Although wife acknowledged that husband was now compliant, she still sought sanctions against the husband for his prior failure to maintain the policy and for allowing his dependents to go uninsured for such a long period of time. It was clear that husband only complied with the obligation after wife was forced to bring litigation and wife feared that husband would simply fail to pay the next scheduled premium.
In his opinion, Judge Jones lays out four tips regarding life insurance and divorce:
• The court may direct that the supported spouse or other parent be named as the owner of the policy, if permitted by the insurance company. This option is particularly relevant when the supporting spouse has a history of failing to adhere to his or her court-ordered life insurance obligations. Being the “owner” of the policy, rather than the “beneficiary” or the “insured”, allows for the party to receive any and all notices and communications from the insurance company regarding the status of the policy, including invoices, notices of proposed cancellation, change in policy terms and renewal dates;
• When a party willfully breaches a court-ordered obligation to carry life insurance, the court may issue multiple forms of relief, including but not limited to ongoing financial sanctions, until such time as the defaulting party complies with the obligation;
• When a party violates a court order, but ultimately complies prior to the conclusion of enforcement litigation, such compliance does not completely erase or negate the violation. Nonetheless, remedial and corrective conduct is equitably relevant on the issue of mitigating sanctions and penalties which might otherwise be imposed under the circumstances. In this case, the wife had asked for a sanction of $7,440.00, the amount of money that husband had saved over the years by failing to comply with his obligation. Finding it a mitigating factor that husband ultimately did cure the defect and that wife was not financially harmed, husband was sanctioned $2,500.00 and was ordered to reimburse wife her $50.00 filing fee for the enforcement motion; and
• As life insurance is an ongoing financial obligation intrinsically related to spousal and/or child support, an insurance provision in a judgment of divorce or settlement agreement is potentially subject to post-judgment modification upon a showing of a substantial change of circumstances, pursuant to Lepis v. Lepis 83 N.J. 139, 145-46 (1980). This situation may occur when a term policy naturally expires and the insurance is either much older or less healthy than at the time of divorce, meaning the cost of the policy could be substantially increased and thus revisited by the Court.
While no one wants to think about the consequences associated with an untimely death, the takeaway from this case is that as the supported spouse/parent, it is imperative that you are “in the know” regarding the insurance policies that could very well dictate your financial security (and your children’s) for the rest of your life. If your ex-spouse has an obligation to secure their support payments with life insurance and you have not seen recently seen a copy of the policy, it might be time to reach out and connect with them to ensure the policy is current.
Lauren K. Beaver is a contributor to the New Jersey Family Law Blog and an attorney in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group. Lauren practices out of the firm’s Princeton, New Jersey office representing clients on issues relating to divorce, support, equitable distribution, custody, and parenting time. Lauren also offers mediation services to those looking to procure a more amicable divorce. Lauren can be reached at (609) 844-3027 or firstname.lastname@example.org.