Willis v. Prudential Ins. Co. of America

PETITIONER: Willis
RESPONDENT: Prudential Ins. Co. of America
LOCATION: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

DOCKET NO.: 70-5344
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1972-1975)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of Georgia

CITATION: 405 US 318 (1972)
ARGUED: Feb 28, 1972
DECIDED: Mar 20, 1972

ADVOCATES:
A. Felton Jenkins, Jr. - for respondent
E. Freeman Leverett - for petitioner

Facts of the case

Question

Media for Willis v. Prudential Ins. Co. of America

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 28, 1972 in Willis v. Prudential Ins. Co. of America

Warren E. Burger:

-- hear arguments next in 70-5344, Willis against Prudential.

Mr. Leverett.

E. Freeman Leverett:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court.

The Court granted certiorari in this case to review a decision of the Supreme Court of Georgia holding that the Beneficiary Clause of the Servicemen's Life Insurance Act of 1965 should be construed according to Georgia law.

And on that basis, the words “child or children” is used in the federal Act, were held to include legitimate children only and to exclude the illegitimate children of a deceased serviceman.

This case commenced with the filing of a suit in the Superior Court of Elbert County, Georgia in July, 1969 against the Prudential Insurance Company of America, the respondent, seeking recovery of the $10,000 proceeds of a policy written under the Act.

At the time of filing suit, the petitioner, Lorenzo Willis, was a two-year-old, illegitimate, Negro son of a 15-year-old mother, Janice Willis and a 20-year-old serviceman, Johnny Cleveland Simpson who was killed in Vietnam on September 1968.

The deceased was not married but prior to his death, had orally acknowledged the child as his own.

He had also signed a statement agreeing to pay the lying-in expenses and he had, prior to his death, contributed to the care and support of the child.

In addition, the paternity of the child had been recognized by the Social Security and Veterans Administrations for the purpose of paying social security and for pension benefits.

At the time of entering the service, the serviceman, the deceased, did not designate a beneficiary by name but simply checked a block on the form which specified that payment is to be made “in the order of precedence set forth in the law.”

The Act in this instance provides that the proceeds shall be paid in this order of precedence, first, to the designated beneficiary, secondly, to the widow or widower, third, the child or children, fourth, parents, fifth, the executor-administrator, sixth, next of kin under the laws of the serviceman's -- of domicile.

Following the death of the deceased in action, his father, offered to assist in securing the benefits for the petitioner.

And papers were turned over to him for this purpose but instead of securing the benefits for his grandson, the grandfather obtained them for himself, although his application noted that there was an illegitimate son.

This action was then filed on the part and on behalf of the minor.

Following depositions, requests for admissions, motions for summary judgment were made.

The Superior Court of Elbert County granted summary judgment on behalf of the petitioner and denied it to the respondent.

That Court relied upon lower federal court decisions interpreting the Federal Employees' Group Life Insurance Act which it held that illegitimate children could take.

At that time the four or five cases interpreting the Servicemen's Life Insurance Act had not been decided or had not been reported.

The Court of Appeals of Georgia, the intermediate appellate court, affirmed using the same approach to statutory construction.

But on certiorari, the Supreme Court of Georgia relying upon three prior decisions, two involving the FEGLI and one, decided four months earlier, involving the SGLI, held that the words “child or children” should be construed according to Georgia law as found with respect to wills, contracts, inheritance and deeds.

And under these decisions, child or children would include legitimate children only.

Two Justices dissented.

I'd like to address some remarks preliminarily to the motion to dismiss in this case on the ground that the writ was improvidently granted.

This Court granted certiorari on November the 9th, of last year.

In early December, Congress passed and on December 15th, the President signed an amendment to the Servicemen's Group Life Insurance Act, H.R. 907 Public Law 92185 which undertakes to define the terms in question here among others.

With respect to the instant problem, child is defined to include an illegitimate child as to the father only if about six situations are met, first, that the father must have acknowledged to the child in a writing signed by him.

Secondly, the father must have been judicially ordered to contribute to the child's support or the father must have been prior to death, judicially declared to be the father.

Fourth, proof of paternity be established by a certified copy of a public record of birth or baptism showing that the father was the informant and that he listed himself as father.

Lastly, proof -- proof of paternity can be established from the service department of a public record showing that the father with his own knowledge was named as father of the child.