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Serradell v. Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co. (12/12/92), 843 P 2d 639
NOTICE: This opinion is subject to
formal correction before publication in the
Pacific Reporter. Readers are requested to
bring typographical or other formal errors to
the attention of the Clerk of the Appellate
Courts, 303 K Street, Anchorage, Alaska
99501, in order that corrections may be made
prior to permanent publication.
THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF ALASKA
PHILIP J. SERRADELL, )
) Supreme Court No. S-4904
v. ) Superior Court No.
) 4BE-90-138 CIVIL
THE HARTFORD ACCIDENT AND )
INDEMNITY COMPANY, )
) O P I N I O N
______________________________) [No. 3905, December 12, 1992]
Appeal from the Superior Court of the
State of Alaska, Fourth Judicial District,
Dale O. Curda, Judge.
Appearances: Kenneth W. Legacki,
Anchorage, for Appellant. Jean E. Kizer,
Bliss Riordan, Anchorage, for Appellee.
Before: Rabinowitz, Chief Justice,
Burke, Matthews, Compton, and Moore,
RABINOWITZ, Chief Justice.
This appeal stems from a death benefit claim made by
appellant Philip Serradell under a group accident insurance
policy. The superior court granted summary judgment for Hartford
Accident and Indemnity Company and entered judgment dismissing
Serradell's claim. The superior court explained its judgment in
the following manner:
Serradell's right to recover under the
group life insurance policy is governed by
the policy itself and the surrounding circum
stances. The enrollment form, brochure and
policy taken together do not yield a reason
able expectation that Bertha Tikiun would be
covered. There is no evidence that Serradell
relied on any other representations by
Hartford in entering the insurance contract.
Hartford issued a group accident insurance policy to
Alaska U.S.A. Federal Credit Union, Bethel, in 1988. Hartford
then solicited credit union members from Bethel and the
surrounding villages to enroll in their plan by mail. Its solici
tation consisted of a brochure describing the group policy and an
enrollment application form. The policy provided for specified
benefits if the insured died or was injured as a result of a
covered accident; offered the option of enrolling in a family
plan whereby the insured member could purchase coverage for
eligible dependents; and provided for payment of a death benefit
in favor of the insured member in the event an eligible dependent
died as a result of a covered accident.
Serradell is part Italian and Yupik Eskimo. In 1977,
he began living with Bertha Tikiun, a Yupik Eskimo. They never
legally married, living together in what Serradell considered a
common law relationship until Tikiun's death from accidental
causes in 1989.1 Tikiun was the mother of Serradell's two
children. Following Tikiun's death, Serradell applied to
Hartford for $50,000 in accidental death benefits he believed he
was entitled to under the group accident insurance plan he had
enrolled in with Hartford. Hartford denied Serradell's claim for
death benefits on the basis that Tikiun was not an eligible
dependent under the policy because she and Serradell were never
THE BROCHURE, ENROLLMENT APPLICATION FORM, AND POLICY
The insurance brochure which Serradell received with
his enrollment application form included a section entitled "Who
is Eligible." This section reads as follows:
If you are an Alaska USA member age 18
or older, you are eligible for accident
protection insurance. In addition, your
spouse under age 70, unmarried children under
age 19, and unmarried children to age 23 who
are full-time students and primarily
dependent on you for support are also
eligible for coverage.2
The enrollment application form contained a space for
Serradell to identify beneficiaries. Following the caption
"Member's Beneficiary" Serradell printed the names "Bertha
Tikiun, Gabriel J. Serradell and Cherilyn M. Serradell . . .
Family."3 Serradell also enrolled in the family plan under which
"eligible dependents" were covered for an additional monthly
The Certificate of Insurance which Hartford issued to
Serradell defined "Covered Person"as "you, or your Eligible
Dependents while you, he or she is covered under the policy." Of
particular significance to the resolution of this appeal is the
certificate's description of spouse as an eligible dependent. In
this regard the certificate provides: "Spouse means your spouse
unless: (a) you and your spouse are legally separated or
divorced." (Emphasis in original.)
THE SUPERIOR COURT'S GRANT OF SUMMARY JUDGMENT
Where there are no disputed facts the construction of
an insurance contract is a matter for the court. O'Neil
Investigations v. Illinois Employers' Ins. of Wausau, 636 P.2d
1170, 1173 (Alaska 1981). Our precedents establish that
insurance contracts are to be construed so as to provide that
coverage which a layperson would have reasonably expected from a
lay interpretation of the policy terms. An ambiguity exists when
the contract as a whole and the extrinsic evidence support
differing reasonable interpretations. Stordahl v. Government
Employees Ins. Co., 564 P.2d 63, 66 (Alaska 1977).
Hartford's position is that no ambiguity exists as to
the meaning of the term "spouse"as used in the policy because
they claim spouse means the member's lawful husband or wife.
Since Serradell and the decedent were never legally married, the
decedent was not Serradell's spouse and therefore did not qualify
for coverage under the terms of the policy which extended
coverage to "spouse and child(ren)."
Serradell's main contention is that in the past this
court has "recognized that Native Alaskans have a unique and
enriching culture which is different than that of urban
Anchorage, and accordingly has accommodated that different
culture . . . [and that] Hartford failed to consider the unique
lifestyle of the Alaska Natives and how Alaska Natives define
family and spouse." Serradell further argues that although
"[c]ommon Law marriage has been abolished in the state of Alaska
. . . the Alaska Supreme Court has recognized that a family
relationship may exist for some purposes even though formal legal
requirements have not been met."4
As indicated at the outset we are persuaded that
Hartford should prevail in this appeal. There is no question
that Serradell and Tikiun were never legally married or that
Serradell and Tikiun ever applied for or obtained a marriage
license from the State of Alaska or any other state. Serradell
did testify that they attempted to have the Catholic, Moravian,
and Pentecostal churches marry them, but all refused because
Tikiun had been previously married and divorced. Given this
background and the relevant portions of the insurance brochure,
the enrollment form, and policy we hold that the superior court
was correct in its conclusion that the policy can not reasonably
be interpreted to provide coverage for Tikiun's death.
First, we conclude that there is no ambiguity in the
brochure's enrollment forms, or policy's use of the term "spouse"
which would lead a lay person to expect to recover death benefits
for the death of his unmarried cohabitant.5 The policy's
definition of "spouse"establishes that spouse means a legal
Second, we reject Serradell's contention that Hartford
is estopped to assert Tikiun's ineligibility for coverage since
it should have noticed the differences in the last names of the
individuals Serradell listed as beneficiaries on the enrollment
form. As Hartford points out, the different last name could have
"indicated a wife who retained her maiden name, or even an
adopted child." Further, Serradell's completed enrollment form
did not describe Tikiun as a cohabitant, or common law spouse, or
state that Serradell was seeking insurance for her as a spouse.
Hartford had no knowledge that she was not an eligible dependent.
Third, we reject the contention that our decisions have
established an exception to the rule against recognition of
common law marriage which is applicable here. Burgess Constr.
Co. v. Lindley, 504 P.2d 1023, 1024 (Alaska 1972) can not be read
as establishing the proposition that, although Tikiun was not
legally married to Serradell, she could be considered his spouse
for purposes of group accident insurance benefits. Burgess
involved worker's compensation death benefits. In that case we
held that a woman with whom the decedent was living, but from
whom he had been legally divorced, could qualify as a 'surviving
wife'. Our decision was grounded upon the Workers' Compensation
Act definition of married persons which included a decedent's
divorced wife when the decree of divorce required support
payments.7 Nor does Calista Corp. v. Mann, 564 P.2d 53 (Alaska
1977) furnish support for Serradell's position. There we
recognized the doctrine of equitable adoption for purposes of
inheritance among Alaska Natives. Of significance is the fact
that we cautioned:
We do not mean to imply that the
doctrine of equitable adoption has any
application beyond direct intestate
succession nor that it could be employed in
collateral inheritance situations.
Id. at 61 n.21.8
The superior court's entry of summary judgment in favor
of Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company is AFFIRMED.9
1. Serradell and Tikiun lived in Nunapicuaq which is a
small Native village located off the Kuskokwim River near Bethel.
2. The brochure also provided that:
In addition to your own coverage, family
coverage provides the following insurance for
. If you have a spouse only, 60%
of your coverage.
. If you have a spouse and
children, your spouse is insured for 50%
of your Principal Sum and each unmarried
child under age 19 (23 for full-time
students) is insured for 20% of your
. If you have children only,
each child is insured for 25% of your
Principal Sum to age 19 (23 if a full-
3. This section of the enrollment form as completed by
Serradell reads in full:
Member's Beneficiary Bertha Tikiun,
Gabriel J. Serradell and Cherilyn M.
Serradell (the Beneficiary for my insurance
of dependents is the Member). Relationship
of Beneficiary to Member Family.
4. For this statement Serradell relies upon Burgess Constr.
Co. v. Lindley, 504 P.2d 1023 (Alaska 1972) and Calista Corp. v.
Mann, 564 P.2d 53, 59-62 (Alaska 1977).
5. There is no common law marriage in Alaska. Edwards v.
Franke, 364 P.2d 60, 63-64 (Alaska 1961). See also AS
25.05.011(a) and (b).
6. In Hedlund v. Monumental General Ins. Co., 404 N.W.2d
371, 373-74 (Minn. App. 1987) the court concluded:
However, "spouse"is commonly known to
mean husband or wife. "The legal, as well as
the ordinary, meaning of 'spouse' is one's
wife or husband." (citations omitted.)
We realize that unmarried couples are
increasingly cohabiting and that many of
these relationships are permanent and
analogous to marital relationships. But they
are not spousal relationships within the
meaning of Minnesota law. Although Minnesota
historically recognized common law marriage,
it has been specifically abolished by the
legislature. (citation omitted.) We cannot
ignore that pronouncement.
See also, Van Ostrand v. National Life Assurance Co. of Canada,
371 N.Y.S.2d 51 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1975).
7. In regard to the definition of "married"we said in
It is clear under the statutory
definition of "married"that the decedent,
though divorced, was "married" for the
purpose of the Workmen's Compensation Act,
for the divorce decree required him to
contribute to appellee's support. It follows
that under the Act appellee would be regarded
as his "surviving wife."
Burgess Constr. Co. v. Lindley, 504 P.2d 1023, 1024 (Alaska
8. Proctor v. Insurance Co. of North America, 714 P.2d 1156
(Utah 1986), relied upon by Serradell, is distinguishable. There
neither the terms of the policy, nor eligibility for coverage
9. We have considered all of Serradell's remaining
arguments and have determined that they are without merit.