For Plaintiff: Gregory J. Acciardo, Esq.
For Defendant: Paul A. Anderson, Esq. Amato A. DeLuca, Esq.
Fra il dire e il fare c'è di mezzo il mare – An ocean lies between what is said and what is done.
This Italian adage comes to mind as the Court is thrust into an unfortunate family dispute spurred by a change in beneficiary designation on an annuity contract owned by Domenic Zubiago (Mr. Zubiago) at the time of his death. The clash arises between Plaintiff Mark Quillen (Mr. Quillen), Mr. Zubiago's great-nephew, and Defendant Mary Macera (Mrs. Macera), Mr. Zubiago's sister. Mr. Quillen contends that Mrs. Macera exerted undue influence over Mr. Zubiago resulting in her being named as the beneficiary on the annuity account to Mr. Quillen's exclusion. Jurisdiction is pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 8-2-13.
Facts and Travel
The parties in this case have elected a non-jury trial. As such, the following narrative sets forth this Court's composite of the facts established from the evidence presented.
The decedent, Mr. Zubiago, worked for the Providence Police Department for twenty-five years. After reaching the rank of detective, he retired from the force and began a career as a security officer for Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Rhode Island (Blue Cross). In 2010, after working at Blue Cross for another twenty-five years, Mr. Zubiago began his well-deserved retirement at the age of eighty-six. By all accounts, Mr. Zubiago was a very private man and remained independent even in his advanced age. During the course of his working life, he was able to amass a sizeable estate. Having no children of his own, Mr. Zubiago devised the majority of his estate, $1.3 million, to his seventeen nieces and nephews under the provisions of his last will and testament.
The dispute before the Court involves two annuity accounts Mr. Zubiago opened with Amica Insurance Company (Amica), which passed to beneficiaries outside his will. The first account, Policy No. 1-200019591 (Smaller Annuity), was opened in 1983, listing Mr. Zubiago's oldest sister, Emilia Zubiago (Emilia), as the beneficiary. The second account, Policy No. 1-200019343 (Disputed Annuity), was created about a decade later, again with Emilia as the intended beneficiary. Upon Emilia's death in 2002, Mr. Zubiago changed the beneficiary of these two annuities to his youngest sister, Mrs. Macera. To effect this change, Mr. Zubiago executed two change of beneficiary forms, both of which were witnessed by yet another sister of the Zubiago family, Filomena Silvestri (Mrs. Silvestri).
Two years later, Mr. Zubiago changed the intended beneficiary of these two annuities once again, naming his great-nephew Mr. Quillen as recipient of the funds. At trial, Mr. Quillen asserted that he had developed a "special relationship" with Mr. Zubiago while living with his grandfather, Mr. Zubiago's brother, Joseph,  in his youth. With regard to the circumstances of this change in beneficiary, Mr. Quillen testified that in May of 2004, Mr. Zubiago called him "out of the blue" asking for his date of birth and social security number. He stated that Mr. Zubiago told him that he wanted to list Mr. Quillen as a beneficiary on one of his annuity accounts.
After this brief call, Mr. Quillen did not hear from Mr. Zubiago for another six months, until one day in November 2004, Mr. Zubiago called asking him to come over his house. Once Mr. Quillen arrived, they called Amica together to request change of beneficiary forms and verify the accounts. At the time, the Smaller Annuity contained $28, 382.43 while the Disputed Annuity had a balance of $115, 994.42. Mr. Quillen testified that Mr. Zubiago promised to add another $60, 000, to provide a total of approximately $200, 000. However, the bank from which Mr. Zubiago planned to withdraw the funds did not allow non-taxable partial transfers and, as a result, a transfer of $60, 000 would cause him to incur a tax obligation in excess of $10, 000. Faced with these tax ramifications, Mr. Zubiago apparently settled on transferring only $30, 000, costing him approximately $5000 in taxes. The bank sent Mr. Zubiago the check, which he endorsed, and Mr. Quillen deposited in the Disputed Annuity. A few days later, the change of beneficiary forms arrived in the mail. Mr. Quillen dutifully assisted his great-uncle in filling these forms out.
Mr. Quillen also testified that at this time, Mr. Zubiago told him that he had a Certificate of Deposit (CD) account which would soon be due that he wished to add to the promised annuities. In January 2005, Mr. Quillen received a check for $74, 457.62, representing Mr. Zubiago's withdrawal from the CD, as well as an additional check for $20, 000 from Mr. Zubiago's checking account with Citizens Bank (Citizens). Both checks were added to the balance of the Disputed Annuity. According to Mr. Quillen, Mr. Zubiago stated that this sizeable gift stemmed from his close relationship with his brother Joseph, Mr. Quillen's grandfather, as well as his own bond with Mr. Quillen.
Once the transfer of over $240, 000 was accomplished, Mr. Quillen had limited contact with Mr. Zubiago, primarily seeing him only at large family gatherings such as weddings and holidays. In the summer of 2005, he helped his great-uncle fill out some forms in preparation for prostate surgery. Later, in 2007, Mr. Zubiago showed Mr. Quillen financial documents relating to the various annuities he set up for his other great-nephews, Stephen Zubiago and Joey Macera. Mr. Quillen also testified that at this time, Mr. Zubiago informed him that the remainder of the estate would be distributed among his seventeen nieces and nephews. After this visit, Mr. Quillen had only passing interactions with Mr. Zubiago at family events. Surprisingly, Mr. Quillen acknowledged limited contact with Mr. Zubiago ...