Tennessee Supreme Court Rules Trial Court May Remedy Violation of Statutory Injunction after Death of a Party Ends Divorce Case

June 15, 2018

In a unanimous opinion, the Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that when a party to a divorce case violates a statutory injunction and then dies while the case is pending, a trial court may, after considering the equities of the parties, remedy the violation of the injunction.

Under Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-4-106(d)(2), when a divorce complaint is filed and served, an injunction goes into effect prohibiting both parties from changing the beneficiary on any life insurance policy that names either party as the beneficiary without the consent of the other party or a court order. Upon the death of one of the parties, however, the divorce case ends, and the injunction is no longer effective.  

In the case before the Court, Jessica Olson sued her husband, Bryan Olson, for divorce. A week later, in violation of the statutory injunction, Ms. Olson changed the primary beneficiary on her life insurance policy from her husband to her mother and named the Olsons’ child as the contingent beneficiary. Ms. Olson died a few days later from a serious illness. Her mother, Rose Coleman, collected the life insurance benefits.

In a separate case, Ms. Coleman sued Mr. Olson for grandparent visitation under Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-6-306. Mr. Olson responded that Ms. Coleman was not entitled to court-ordered visitation because he did not oppose visitation. He also countersued Ms. Coleman to recover the life insurance benefits, alleging fraud, forgery and undue influence. The trial court found no forgery, fraud or undue influence, but awarded the insurance benefits to the Olsons’ child, finding that Ms. Olson had intended to remove Mr. Olson and substitute their child as the insurance beneficiary. In addition, the trial court granted Ms. Coleman’s petition for grandparent visitation. The Court of Appeals reversed, awarding the life insurance benefits to Mr. Olson because Ms. Olson had violated the injunction and denying Ms. Coleman’s request for court-ordered visitation because there was no proof that Mr. Olson had opposed visitation.

The Tennessee Supreme Court granted Ms. Coleman’s request to hear the case. In an opinion authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, the Supreme Court held that after a divorce case ends due to the death of a party, a trial court has the authority to remedy a violation of the statutory injunction by considering the equities of the parties. Even though a divorce case ends and the statutory injunction becomes ineffective upon the death of a party while the case is pending, the Supreme Court concluded that “a trial court should have the authority to ‘right a wrong’ and remedy an injustice based on equitable considerations when a party violates a statutory injunction and later dies while the divorce action is pending.”

In its ruling, the Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s decision to award the insurance benefits to the Olsons’ child because neither party had asked for this relief and the evidence did not support creating what amounted to a constructive trust for the child. In addition, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals to award the life insurance benefits to Mr. Olson because there was insufficient evidence of the parties’ circumstances. Because this ruling announced a new approach in these kinds of cases, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the trial court so the parties could present evidence to enable the trial court to determine fairly whether either or both parties should receive all or a portion of the life insurance benefits.

As to the issue of grandparent visitation, the Supreme Court affirmed the holding of the Court of Appeals that Ms. Coleman is not entitled to court-ordered visitation because Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-6-306(a) requires evidence of actual parental opposition to grandparent visitation rather than likely future opposition. Ms. Coleman neither alleged nor proved that Mr. Olson opposed her visiting with her grandchild.

To read the unanimous opinion of the Court in Rose Coleman v. Bryan Olson, authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, please visit the Opinions section of tncourts.gov.