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In re Estate of Couture

Supreme Court of New Hampshire

February 21, 2014

In re Estate of Lucien Couture

Argued: November 14, 2013.

Page 542

7th Circuit Court -- Dover Probate Division.

McNeill, Taylor & Gallo, P.A., of Dover ( R. Peter Taylor on the brief and orally), for the petitioner.

Wing & Weintraub, P.C., of Milford ( David C. Wing on the brief and orally), for the respondent.

CONBOY, J. DALIANIS, C.J., and HICKS, LYNN and BASSETT, JJ., concurred.

OPINION

Page 543

[166 N.H. 103] Conboy, J.

The respondent, Hellen Couture, appeals an order of the 7th Circuit Court -- Dover Probate Division ( Cassavechia, J.), which granted the petition of the petitioner, Thomas Couture, the adult son of the decedent, Lucien Couture, to impose a constructive trust, for the benefit of the decedent's heirs, over certain life insurance proceeds paid to the respondent upon the decedent's death. We affirm and remand.

I. Background

The parties either do not dispute, or the record establishes, the following facts. The petition for a constructive trust is

Page 544

grounded upon the claim that [166 N.H. 104] the respondent, the decedent's wife, through fraud, deceit, and misrepresentation, induced the decedent to marry her after she gave birth to a daughter whom she claimed was his. The $140,000 life insurance proceeds were paid equally to the respondent and to the daughter pursuant to the decedent's beneficiary designation. The petitioner sought a constructive trust over only the respondent's portion of the insurance proceeds, which were placed in escrow when the petition was filed.

The respondent and the decedent married in September 2003, a few days after the child was born. The child's birth certificate lists the decedent as her father. Although the decedent had had a vasectomy many years before the respondent's pregnancy, he did not question whether the child was his biological child. Nor did he seek medical confirmation or further evaluation as to whether he could have fathered the child.

Following their marriage, the decedent, the respondent, and the child did not live together as a family. Instead, the decedent lived in Rochester, and the respondent and the child lived together in Somersworth. Unbeknownst to the decedent, the respondent had a concurrent relationship with John Tamara. The trial court found the relationship was " more likely than not" a marriage. The respondent and Tamara continued their relationship throughout the respondent's marriage to the decedent.

In December 2005, the decedent designated the respondent and the child as his beneficiaries of a death benefit payable under an employer-provided life insurance policy. In October or November 2007, Tamara, the respondent, and her daughter moved to Hawaii. The respondent and her daughter returned to New Hampshire in 2008 and lived with the decedent for approximately one month. In August 2008, the decedent filed a petition to divorce the respondent. On January 7, 2009, only days before the final divorce hearing was scheduled to occur, the decedent committed suicide. He died intestate. Pursuant to the subject beneficiary designation form, fifty percent of the death benefit was paid to the respondent and fifty percent was paid to the child.

In February 2009, the decedent's sister brought the petition for a constructive trust. When it was determined that the sister lacked standing, the court allowed the petitioner to be substituted as a party. In November 2011, the respondent moved to dismiss the petition on the grounds that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to impose a constructive trust on her share of the life insurance proceeds, and that the instant claim was not yet justiciable. The trial court denied the motion, and the case proceeded to trial.

Based upon the evidence at trial, the trial court found that the petitioner had established by clear and convincing evidence that the respondent wrongfully induced the decedent to marry her, even though she was [166 N.H. 105] already married to Tamara, " or at least in a more intimate marriage-like relationship with him." The trial court further found that the decedent provided life insurance death benefits to the respondent that " were spousal-based," and that it would be unconscionable for her to retain them " given her bad faith, deceit and misrepresentations." The trial court decided that if the respondent were allowed to retain the proceeds, she would be unjustly enriched. Accordingly, the court imposed a constructive trust on the respondent's share of the life insurance proceeds. The trial court denied the respondent's subsequent motion for reconsideration, and this appeal followed.

Page 545

II. Analysis

Our standard of review of a probate division decision is determined by statute: " The findings of fact of the judge of probate are final unless they are so plainly erroneous that such findings could not be reasonably made." RSA 567-A:4 (2007). Consequently, we will not disturb the probate division's decree unless it is unsupported by the evidence or plainly ...


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