Transamerica Occidental Life Ins. Co. v. Burke

In Transamerica Occidental Life Ins. Co. v. Burke, 179 W.Va. 331, 368 S.E.2d 301 (1988), a parent (Richard Wayne Nelson) was married twice. In the first marriage, the parent fathered three biological children. In the second marriage, no children were born, but for fifteen years the parent lived together with his wife and her three children from her prior marriage. When the parent died, he had an employee life insurance plan and an employee pension plan designating his wife as beneficiary of 50% of the death benefits under both plans. The other beneficiary was designated as "50% - children." The issue before the Court in Burke was whether the term "children" meant only the natural children of the parent, or included the parent's stepchildren as well. The record indicated that the parent provided food, shelter, clothing and transportation for the stepchildren, disciplined the stepchildren, paid for health insurance for the stepchildren, and claimed the stepchildren as dependents on his income tax returns. The parent attempted to adopt the stepchildren, but before the adoptions could be completed, the parent "was laid off from his job and he decided, for financial reasons, not to pursue the adoptions until he was employed again." 179 W.Va. at 334, 368 S.E.2d at 304. The Court conceded that the "term 'children' ordinarily does not include stepchildren, but it may include stepchildren when a contrary intent is found from additional language or circumstances." Syllabus Point 2, Burke. Looking to the parent's use of the term "children" when designating the beneficiaries to his death benefits, the Court found the designation ambiguous, and so turned to examine the parent's factual circumstances when he designated his beneficiaries. Looking at those circumstances, the Court concluded that the stepchildren were "children" who were entitled to share death benefits.