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02/12/93 JAMES AND JOCELYN BOLLE AS CO-PERSONAL

February 12, 1993

JAMES AND JOCELYN BOLLE AS CO-PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVES OF THE ESTATE OF CHRISTOPHER BOLLE AND SUSANNA THAYER BOLLE, APPELLANTS
v.
JEFFERY ELIZABETH HUME, APPELLEE



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; (Hon. Peter H. Wolf, Trial Judge)

Before Schwelb and Farrell, Associate Judges, and Mack, Senior Judge.*

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Per Curiam

PER CURIAM: This action was brought by appellants Susanna Bolle and the Estate of Christopher Bolle, to determine the lawful beneficiary of Christopher Bolle's life insurance benefits. The trial court granted summary judgment to appellee Jeffery Elizabeth Hume, the divorced wife of the decedent. We affirm.

I.

Decedent Christopher Bolle (Bolle) and appellee Jeffery Hume (Hume) were married in 1980 and separated in 1986. In November 1986, having been recently employed as an associate in a Washington, D.C. firm, Bolle executed a "Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue Flexible Benefits Program Enrollment Form" (Beneficiary Form) under his new employer's insurance program, naming Hume as primary beneficiary, and his sister Susanna, as secondary beneficiary. One year later, on November 9, 1987, Bolle and Hume entered into a Property Settlement and separation Agreement (Agreement) which addressed, inter alia, the property rights and spousal support obligations of the marital relationship. In particular, the Agreement provided that Bolle would purchase Hume's interest in a jointly-owned condominium for $4,192.18, and assume responsibility for all associated payments. In addressing this last concern, the parties initially proposed that Bolle "obtain mortgage or credit life insurance covering the outstanding balance due on the deed of trust on the property to take effect upon the conveyance of the property to the Husband . . . for so long as Wife is jointly liable with the Husband on said deed of trust." Concerned that mortgage or credit life insurance would prove too costly, Bolle, on his own initiative, deleted this last provision. Under cover of separate correspondence, the parties agreed to substitute Bolle's life insurance, to which Hume was already the beneficiary, to cover any potential obligations.

In addition, the Agreement contained clauses: (a) waiving additional claims; (b) integrating the agreement; and (c) binding the agreement on all heirs and assigns. Significantly, no reference is made to life insurance policies and any potential benefits therefrom.

Five months following the execution of the Agreement -- on April 8, 1988 -- an order of the Superior Court entered a judgment declaring Hume and Bolle to be divorced. On that very day, Bolle completed another Beneficiary Form wherein he again designated Hume as primary beneficiary, and his sister, Susanna Bolle, as alternate. In May 1990, Bolle died suddenly, leaving insurance proceeds totaling $440,000. Upon his death, appellants brought this action, requesting a declaratory judgment that the estate was entitled to $82,551.53 from the insurance proceeds to pay off the existing deed of trust balance, and that a constructive trust be imposed on the balance of the proceeds in favor of Susanna Bolle, the alternate beneficiary.

II.

Superior Court Civ. R. 56 (c) requires a trial court to grant summary judgment "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." In reviewing a trial court's granting of a motion for summary judgment, our standard is identical to that applied by the trial court when considering the motion in the first instance. Government Employment Ins. v. Group Hospital, 602 A.2d 1083, 1086 (D.C. 1992) (citing Holland v. Hannan, 456 A.2d 807, 814 (D.C. 1983)). This court must, therefore, initiate an independent review of the record to determine whether "any relevant factual issues exist," Graff v. Malawer, 592 A.2d 1038, 1040 (D.C. 1991), keeping in mind that "the mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff's position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202, 106 S. Ct. 2505 (1986).

When applying this standard to contracts, such as the Separation Agreement in this case, summary judgment is inappropriate where the measure of the instrument hinges on the credibility of extrinsic evidence or on a selection between potential inferences to be drawn from such evidence. Holland v. Hannan, supra, 456 A.2d at 815. However, summary judgment is proper "where a contract is unambiguous since, absent such ambiguity, a written contract duly signed and executed speaks for itself and binds the parties without the necessity of extrinsic evidence." Id. (citations omitted). Having reviewed the record, we are satisfied that the trial court was correct in its holding that "no fact finder, resolving disputed facts in favor of plaintiffs, could find that there is sufficient evidence of decedent's intent to alter that expressed in his insurance designation form."

A. Separation Agreement

"Under District of Columbia law, where a separation agreement is fair and reasonable and is intended as a final Disposition regarding property rights or adult support, the parties will be bound by the agreement." Swift v. Swift, 566 A.2d 1045, 1046 (D.C. 1989) (citing Spencer v. Spencer, 494 A.2d 1279, 1285 (D.C. 1985)). Appellant urges that the trial court erred in not considering the extraneous documentation and conversations which purport to reflect the decedent's true intentions. In particular, appellant sought the introduction of several communications exchanged prior to the execution of the Agreement including: (a) a letter of June 3, 1987, from Hume to her counsel articulating her agreement with Bolle wherein he was to purchase her share in the condominium and obtain mortgage or credit life insurance to secure her indemnification in the event of death or bankruptcy; (b) a draft Agreement; (c) a letter dated August 21, 1987, between the parties' counsel stating Bolle's desire to substitute a portion of his life insurance in lieu of obtaining mortgage or credit life insurance; (d) a telephone conversation between Hume and Bolle in which Bolle agreed to make Hume his beneficiary of his life insurance to protect her from any potential liability arising out of the condominium; (e) a letter dated September 24, 1987, between counsel stating that the parties had reached a settlement. *fn1 To determine whether such parol evidence is admissible, we begin our inquiry mindful that

if the contract was not a completely integrated instrument, additional assurances and promises made by one party to another during their negotiations are surely relevant if the trier of fact is to understand the entire arrangement. If, on the other hand, the parties intended the written contract to settle everything, such promises and assurances have far less, if any, significance.

Hercules & Co. v. Shama Restaurant Corp., 613 A.2d 916, 927 (D.C. 1992). A determination whether a contract was not integrated, partially integrated, or completely integrated, depends upon the intent of the parties at the point of contracting. See Howard Univ. v. Good Food Servs., 608 A.2d 116, 126 (D.C. 1992). Our initial focus, therefore, must be on the four corners of the document in question, for "language should be relied upon as providing the best objective ...


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