The recent suicide of Don Cornelius and subsequent reports that his ex-wife, Viktoria Chapman Cornelius, is entitled to collect approximately $300,000 in life insurance benefits has caused a great deal of confusion. Many of us wrongly assume that an act of suicide automatically precludes recovery against any life insurance policy. In fact, no such “blanket” exclusion exists in life insurance law, and whether a beneficiary will collect life insurance proceeds following a suicide ultimately depends upon the terms of each policy.
On February 1, 2012, TMZ made a misleading report that Viktoria Chapman Cornelius has “score[d] huge life insurance payout” based on California law. According to the TMZ Article, the ex-couple’s divorce decree provides that Viktoria was to remain beneficiary of two life insurance policies, and “[u]nder California law, if a policyholder commits suicide within [two] years of the time the policy is issued, the company can deny payment.” TMZ prematurely concluded that because Don Cornelius took out the policy more than two years ago, Viktoria would undoubtedly collect the life insurance proceeds. However, her right to the subject benefits cannot be confirmed without a thorough legal review of the life insurance contracts, and any reports based solely on “California law” are unfounded.
Typically, life insurance policies do expressly deny coverage for death by suicide, and such policies contain an exclusionary clause and often a definition of suicide. For example, life insurance contracts may include a provision similar to the following: “If the insured, whether sane or insane, dies by suicide within two years from the date of the policy, no benefits are payable.” These exclusions are generally recognized as valid.
An issue surrounding death by suicide arises, with or without an exclusionary clause, under Accidental Death & Dismemberment policies. The concept of denying AD&D coverage for suicide is easier to understand because an intentional taking of one’s life can hardly be considered an accident. In most cases, though, the life insurance company has the burden to prove that an insured’s death was committed with the requisite suicidal intent, and a mere intent to inflict pain which results in death will not be sufficient. Indeed, numerous life insurance cases have involved an insured’s death caused by “erotic asphyxiation,” or the act of intentionally choking oneself or otherwise restricting oxygen to the brain for sexual gratification. Under these circumstances, a self-inflicted death will not be considered an intentional suicide for the purposes of life insurance coverage. Thus, while Viktoria Chapman Cornelius may collect the full $300,000 in benefits, additional information about the specific terms of Don Cornelius’ life insurance contracts is required to make a proper determination.
Don Cornelius was a pioneer whose enormous contribution to music, television, and popular culture will always be remembered and appreciated. He is best known for his creation of “Soul Train” and its national exposure and tribute to decades of black artists and icons. Don – wishing you eternal love, peace, and soul…