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Florida Court Dismisses Counterclaim Alleging Negligence and Failure to Investigate Against American General Life Insurance Company


Thomas Collum worked for a company that provided him a pension in the form of an annuity issued by the American General Life Insurance Company (“American General”).

Mr. Collum left the company in 1993 and divorced his first wife, Bonnie, that same year. In 1994, he married Mrs. Valerie Collum and, though they never legally divorced, they stopped living together in 1995. Later that year, Mr. Collum began cohabitating with – but never married - Toni Jean Brown.

The annuity certificate was issued in 2005. In June 2008, Mr. Collum asked American General for a pension benefit calculation and submitted proof that he was no longer married to Bonnie Collum. At the same time, Mr. Collum revealed nothing about either of the two later relationships he had with Mrs. Valerie Collum or Ms. Toni Brown.

In an August 2008 election form, Mr. Collum designated his then cohabitant of over ten years, Ms. Brown, as the joint annuitant and chose “100% Joint & Survivor” which is “payable to you [Thomas Collum] as long as you live and after your death to be continued during the remaining lifetime of the Joint Annuitant.” In June 2017, however, he stopped cohabitating with Ms. Brown and submitted a request form to change the beneficiary to his daughter, Laura Lynne Scott.

Mr. Collum died on August 14, 2020. Soon thereafter, Mrs. Collum made a claim to the benefit. Ms. Brown and Ms. Scott also asserted separate claims to the monthly benefit.

The Court’s Decision

American General filed a declaratory relief and interpleader action to determine the proper beneficiary for pension benefits under an annuity. Mrs. Collum filed a pro se counterclaim against American General, alleging that it failed to investigate public records regarding Mr. Collum’s marital status when it agreed to change his beneficiary. American General then filed a motion to dismiss Mrs. Collum’s counterclaim.

In granting American General’s motion to dismiss, the court explained that Mrs. Collum’s counterclaim:

  • Was preempted by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”) because the alleged conduct at issue “is intertwined with the refusal to pay benefits” and “the counterclaim involves a dispute over a change of beneficiary form.”
  • Failed to state a claim for relief under Florida law for either negligence or failure to investigate whether Mr. Collum was truthful in the August 2008 election form because negligence requires the breach of a legal duty and an insurance company does not have a duty to investigate whether an applicant’s statements in an application are correct.

In addition, the court found that Mrs. Collum’s counterclaim must be dismissed because it is duplicative of the precise issues to be determined in the underlying case.

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