Too Many Beneficiaries Spoil the Distribution — Leads to Interpleader: UBS Financial v. Aliberti
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By Christopher G. Lazarini

A financial institution holding a self-directed IRA owes no fiduciary duty to the account owner; however, when the owner dies, a fiduciary relationship arises between the financial institution and the owner’s beneficiary.

UBS Financial Services, Inc. vs. Aliberti, No. 17-P-1169 (Mass. App., 10/4/18).

Paperwork Error Lends Uncertainty

Following the death of a client, UBS found itself in a quandary over three IRA accounts. The client had named Defendant, his former romantic partner, as beneficiary when he opened the accounts. Shortly before his death, however, the client attempted to change the designations on two accounts. He marked the change forms incorrectly; naming a new primary beneficiary and three contingents (one of which was Defendant), but marking the form so that each beneficiary would receive a 25% share. He died before signing corrected forms. UBS distributed the assets in the two accounts equally among the four named beneficiaries, but held the assets in the account for which no change had been attempted for over a year, purportedly ignoring Defendant’s and her counsel’s requests for information.

Discord Leads to Interpleader & Delay

Making matters worse, the client’s former sister-in-law, the UBS broker who managed the accounts, was not fond of Defendant and sent her several off-color text messages when Defendant requested that all assets be distributed to her as sole beneficiary on the accounts. UBS filed an interpleader action against Defendant and the person whom the client attempted to name as primary beneficiary on the accounts already distributed. Asserting her beneficiary status, Defendant counterclaimed and cross-claimed. After another year passed, the parties agreed that UBS would distribute the assets in the third account to Defendant. Unappeased, Defendant amended her counterclaim against UBS to allege breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and unfair and deceptive acts under the Massachusetts consumer protection act. The trial court granted judgment on the pleadings for UBS, and Defendant appealed.

UBS Wins Dismissal

Conducting a de novo review and accepting Defendant’s factual allegations as true, the Court affirms the judgment on the emotional distress claims, but reverses on all others. The Court finds Defendant sufficiently plead her breach of contract claims. UBS, itself, attached the client agreements to its complaint, and the Court finds Defendant has standing to sue under them as an intended beneficiary. The Court also finds the allegations of undue delay in making distributions and making distributions to improper persons sufficient to support the claim that UBS breached the agreements and caused Defendant damages.

Defendant Wins Reversal

Similarly, the Court finds Defendant sufficiently plead her breach of fiduciary duty claim. Upon the client’s death, UBS became a trustee, which is a fiduciary under New York law, holding the assets for Defendant’s sole benefit. As such, UBS owed Defendant at least a duty of due care, which it allegedly failed to meet in refusing to provide Defendant with information and in delaying distribution. The Court rejects UBS’ argument that the fiduciary duty claim duplicated the breach of contract claim because punitive damages are allowed for breach of a fiduciary duty, but not in an ordinary breach of contract.

Finally, the Court finds Defendant sufficiently plead her consumer protection act claim. Under both its contractual and fiduciary obligations, UBS was engaged in “trade or commerce” and committed an “unfair or deceptive act” by denying Defendant the funds to which she was entitled for multiple years, without good reason, and forcing her to take legal action and incur attorneys’ fees and costs.

(C. Lazarini) (EIC: *Interpleader actions, while casting the holder of the corpus as neutral, are fraught with liability issues for the actions taken by the holder. If one foresees the ultimate necessity for an interpleader action, it's best to "bite the bullet" and file early. **Caveat: Once a BD chooses to file an interpleader, removing any claims that develop against the BD to arbitration may be subject to a waiver ruling.)

(SOLA Ref. No. 2018-41-09)

NOTICE: The court decision synopsis published above represents an abbreviated description of the actual decision and is re-printed here for its educational value. The author's effort is to report concisely the substance of the decision or a selected portion of the decision; commentary or analysis is generally reserved for the italicized section at the bottom of the summary. Subscribers to SAC's Online Litigation Alert (SOLA), from which this synopsis is excerpted, have immediate access to the full decision, in addition to the synopsis. 

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