West Virginia Insurance Battle Moves From Courts to Legislature
Last summer, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals issued an opinion in Purdue v. Nationwide Life Insurance Company, a case presenting the issue of whether a life insurer is required to undertake periodic investigations to determine whether any of its policyholders are deceased (and, thus, that a death benefit is payable). While the Court did not rule that insurers had a specific obligation to review the Social Security Death Master File (DMF) or similar databases, it nonetheless held that the dormancy period for a life insurance policy begins at the date of death and placed the burden on insurers to figure out how to ascertain that information. Of course, an insurer could search the DMF, the Court explained, but they could also “contact its insureds directly” (e.g., call them every year), farm the task out to agents, or do whatever else the found “the most economical” so long as they obtained the required information.
While the West Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling seemed to be the end of the matter, some lawmakers are opening up a new front in the state legislature. A few weeks ago, two West Virginia lawmakers introduced House Bill 4473, which would amend the state unclaimed property act to provide that:
in the case of a life or endowment insurance policy or an annuity payable upon proof of death, the obligation to pay does not arise until after a claim is made with the insurer and due proof of death is received by the insurer.
The bill provides that it is being introduce to “clarify an unintended result” of the Supreme Court’s decision in Nationwide. Not everyone agrees, however, that the obligation to contact holders was “unintended” by the Court. According to a story in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, one of those who disagrees with this characterization, and the new legislation, is West Virginia State Treasurer John Purdue, the official who began the case against the insurers in 2012 which led to the Supreme Court’s decision. According to the Gazette-Mail, the Treasurer noted that the Supreme Court’s decision was “bipartisan” and unanimous, and urged the legislature to reject the bill.
The bill is currently pending before the West Virginia House Judiciary Committee.