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Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada v. Wells Fargo Bank

New Jersey Supreme Court
208 A.3d 839 (2019)


Facts

In her 80s, retired middle-school teacher Nancy Bergman applied for a $5 million life-insurance policy with Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada (Sun Life) (plaintiff). The inspection report said Nancy earned over $600,000 a year, with a net worth of $9.235 million. In reality, she made $3,000 a month in pension and social security income, with an estate under $250,000. The policy listed a trust as sole owner and beneficiary, with Nancy as grantor and grandson Nachman Bergman as trustee. In accordance with New Jersey law, the policy contained an incontestability clause preventing Sun Life from challenging its validity more than two years after issuance for any reason except premium nonpayment. The original trust agreement said any life-insurance proceeds would go only to Nachman, but about five weeks after the policy issued, Nachman resigned as trustee and appointed four investors who did not know Nancy as successor trustees. The investors deposited money into the trust to pay premiums, and the trust agreement was amended so they would receive most of the life-insurance benefits or could sell the policy to outsiders. Over two years later, the trust sold the policy, and Wells Fargo Bank (defendant) acquired it. When Nancy died at 89, Wells Fargo attempted to collect the death benefit. Sun Life investigated, discovered the discrepancies in Nancy’s application, and filed a lawsuit to declare the policy void at the outset as part of a stranger-owned life-insurance (STOLI) scheme. On appeal, the federal circuit court certified the question for the New Jersey Supreme Court to answer.

Rule of Law

Issue

Holding and Reasoning (Rabner, C.J.)

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