Under California law, a judge may issue a domestic violence restraining order for up to five years. The order normally will include “no contact” provisions and “stay away” directives, but in a recent case out of Los Angeles County, the judge not only issued a five-year domestic violence restraining order (DVRO), but also required the offending party, the husband, to change the beneficiary on a $4 million life insurance policy that insured the wife’s life – from Husband, to a charity of Wife’s choosing.
In this case, Parris J. v. Christopher U. (2023) 2023 DJDAR 10143, the parties started dating in 2017 when the protected party (“Parris”) was 27 and the other person (“Christopher”) was 48. The parties moved in together in April 2018 and got engaged in in February 2019. In the following month, March, Christopher purchased a $4 million insurance policy on Parris’s life for his benefit. Then the parties were married in late May, 2019.
Parris filed a request for a DVRO in November 2019, just six months into the marriage. Christopher, in turn, filed a request for a DVRO against Parris on April 1, 2020. Finally, Parris filed a request on March 29, 2021, for an order requiring Christopher to either cancel the life insurance policy or change the beneficiary from himself to a charity of her choosing. Parris argued to the Court that Christopher’s refusal to cancel the life insurance policy was a “’separate and further act of domestic violence’”. According to Parris, “Christopher told her the policy’s death benefit was $1 million, and she only became aware of the actual amount of the death benefit through discovery in the underlying proceedings”
The trial on all of these issues went from May to June 2021. Besides denying the DVRO request made by Christopher, the judge, the Hon. Mark Juhas, issued a five-year restraining order in favor of Wife and “ordered Christopher to change the beneficiary on the Life Insurance Policy to a charity of Parris’s choice, and prohibited Christopher from changing the beneficiary while the DVRO was in place. (Pursuant to Family Code section 6344, Judge Juhas ordered Christopher to pay $200,000.00 in attorney fees, based on her request for an award of $227,380.29. In so doing, Judge Juhas found that the $200,000.00 was reasonable and that Christopher had the ability to pay both his own lawyer fees as well as those of Parris.)
The judge made other orders in conjunction with the DVRO, and those other orders were based on facts not discussed in this Blog post. But concerning the life insurance policy, the Court noted that although the policy was “an investment vehicle”, the policy was also “very personal” in nature. “Considering the Life Insurance Policy’s $4 million death benefit, as well as the nature and duration of the parties’ relationship, the court found Cristopher’s maintenance of the Life Insurance Policy was an ‘ongoing disturbance of [Parris’s] peace’”.
Thus, the trial court first acknowledged that it could not order the cancelation of the policy because the policy was Christopher’s separate property. However, the Court prohibited Christopher from cashing, borrowing against, canceling, transferring, or disposing of the life insurance policy while the DVRO was in place; ordered him to change the beneficiary of the policy from himself to a charity selected by Parris; and prohibited him from making future changes to the beneficiary of the policy for the duration of the DVRO.
Christopher appealed, and lost. In its 3-0 decision, the Court of Appeal held that only a subjective standard need be used when deciding whether someone’s actions in the context of a domestic violence case has disturbed the peace of the other party within the meaning of Family Code section 6320. In other words, the question is not whether a reasonable person would have felt a disturbance of peace based on the actions of Christopher (most of which, as mentioned above, are not described in this blog). Rather, the question is only whether Parris felt her peace had been disturbed.
The justices admitted that the objective vs. subjective standard question was not addressed by existing case law but that did not matter because as the party appealing, the burden was on Christopher to affirmatively show error. The justices then found that substantial evidence supported a finding that the existing policy disturbed the peace of Parris. Specifically, the trial court could find “Parris’s discovery of the Life Insurance Policy’s $4 million death benefit increased her fear because she learned Christopher had a significant financial incentive to kill her, and that she feared for her safety as a result”. “Indeed, at trial, Parris testified she had a ‘true concern that [Christopher] would kill [her]’, which led her to ‘fle[e] to an exclusive area in Hawaii to get away from him’ and prevented her from sleeping at night”.
Finally, the Court of Appeal noted that what Judge Juhas did “fell within the bounds of its broad authority under the DVPA to issue ‘a panoply of remedial orders’”.
The appellate decision was authored by the Hon. Brian S. Currey, who is Presiding Justice of the Court of Appeal’s Second Appellate District, Division Four. Concurring were Justices Audra M. Mori and Helen Zukin.
The entire case can be read here. The trial court case no. is 19STFL13412.
In conclusion, the facts of this case seem unusual, but it just goes to show the importance of good advocacy on the one hand; and the reach of California’s domestic violence legislative scheme (and the caselaw interpreting that scheme) on the other.