Legal Drama

Family speaks out about suing Birchman Baptist Church over father's $100,000 estate

Family speaks out about suing Fort Worth church over father's estate

Birchman Baptist Church
More than 1,200 people attend Fort Worth's Birchman Baptist Church each week. Photo via Facebook

Those who knew Sean Rafferty are speaking out against what they call a Fort Worth church’s attempt to profit from his death. Rafferty died from an apparent suicide on June 25, 2013. Just 24 hours before taking his own life, Rafferty, a divorced father of two, signed away his $100,000 life insurance policy to Birchman Baptist Church.

The policy had previously benefited his adult children, Scarlette Rafferty Elliot and Sean Paul Rafferty. They are now suing Birchman for the right to their father’s estate.

In a letter defending the church’s claim on the policy, attorney Randall Schmidt wrote that Rafferty had “no relationship” with his children and had been “scorned” by them.

 “The church has turned their back on the Rafferty family in the name of greed,” says friend Phil Basile.

Phil Basile lived across the street from the Raffertys for 15 years. He doesn’t give any weight to the assertion that Scarlette and Sean weren’t in relationship with their father.

“That’s just not true,” Basile says, adding that Sean visited his father “fairly often” up until the time of his death.

Birchman and Schmidt did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the lawsuit.

Although he admits to overhearing some arguments between Sean Paul and his father through the years, Basile says it was nothing out of the ordinary. “Name one teenage boy that doesn’t fight with his father.”

Basile is baffled by the idea that Birchman would pursue monetary gain while the Rafferty family is in pain.

“The church has turned their back on them in the name of greed,” Basile says. “I was very surprised when it happened, then I was sad, and now I’m angry.

“The fact that he changed the beneficiary the day before he took his own life, that tells you that he wasn’t in his right mind at that point and anyone should have seen it.”

According to Bankers Life and Casualty Company, the request to change the beneficiary from Sean Rafferty’s children to Birchman Baptist was faxed from the church office on June 24, 2013.

The form wasn’t processed until June 26, 2013 — a day after Rafferty had already died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The timing, along with the fact that the children don’t believe the signature on the change of beneficiary form is actually their father’s, is one of many elements under dispute.

 “When a guy goes to a church and is suicidal, you don’t talk him into giving away his money. You counsel him,” says attorney William Brotherton.

Sean Rafferty’s ex-wife, Paula Rafferty, also disagrees with the assertion that her children were estranged from their father or the church.

In Schmidt’s letter, he quotes Birchman pastor Bob Pearle as saying that Scarlette and Sean “hadn’t been in contact with the church in quite some time and declined the church’s involvement with any funeral arrangements for Mr. Rafferty.”

Paula says her daughter was active in church activities up until the point when she moved to Oklahoma and got married, and her son continued to mow Birchman’s grass as late as 2012.

“I was struck by the portrayal of what the pastor said. It sounded as if they had not been there for ages. They grew up in that church,” Paula says. “Everyone they knew was there. They were quite happy there.”

Pearle did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails for comment on this story.

When Paula learned that Birchman was contesting her children’s rights to their father’s life insurance, she was in disbelief. “When I found out the church was listed as the beneficiary, I said 'you’re kidding,’” she recalls.

Birchman Baptist Church is one of the largest congregations in the Southern Baptist Convention. It lists a weekly budget of more than $50,000 and about $2.6 million annually.

“It’s kind of strange that you’d fight so hard for something that you’d hardly notice,” Paula says. “Whereas for the children, it would go a long way in paying student loans,” Paula says.

She pulled out her paperwork from the divorce and called the insurance company. “I had thought that the divorce decree ensured that the policy would go to Scarlette and Sean Paul,” she says.

The children were designated as beneficiaries by court order in 2010 when Mr. and Mrs. Rafferty divorced. Whether or not Mr. Rafferty had the right to change his life insurance policy after Sean and Scarlette turned 18 is now being debated.

“The church has fought this tooth and nail,” says attorney William Brotherton, who is representing the children. “When a guy goes to a church and is suicidal, you don’t talk him into giving away his money. You get someone to counsel him.”

As it turns out, this isn’t the first time Birchman Baptist Church has been accused of preying on a troubled congregant.

In 2003, Linda Reed sued Birchman and a relative of the church’s comptroller for conspiring to swindle 82-year-old father out of more than $30,000. The church was directly accused of having the elderly man with dementia write a check for $1,000, which according to the lawsuit, Birchman then refused to return. Reed eventually dropped the suit.

The next hearing in the Rafferty lawsuit is September 2. In an odd coincidence, Birchman Baptist will host a seminar titled Financial Peace University on September 7. “Turn your finances into a well-oiled machine that prepares for the future and honors God,” the church’s description reads.

Meanwhile, Paula says Scarlette and Sean are trying their best to move on. “They are having to go through all of this on top of the loss of their father. They will never have another father. To me, it seems very much of a conquest for the church.”