Unusual Lawsuits

Judge cuts out kids and awards Fort Worth church $100,000 after father's suicide

Judge hastily awards congregant's life insurance to Fort Worth church

Birchman Baptist Church
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. Photo via Facebook

A Denton County judge has sided with a Fort Worth mega church in a civil dispute over a $100,000 life insurance policy. On September 2, Judge Robert Ramirez awarded Birchman Baptist Church the remaining $85,000 in benefits from the life insurance of Sean C. Rafferty, who committed suicide on June 25, 2013.

Birchman is now seeking attorney's fees from the dead man's children for its time in the lawsuit.

As the result of a 2010 divorce decree, Scarlette Rafferty Elliot and her brother, Sean Paul Rafferty, were previously named the beneficiaries. The siblings sued Birchman Baptist Church for the $100,000 policy, which their father allegedly signed away less than 24 hours before taking his own life.

 Birchman is now seeking attorney's fees from the dead man's children for its time in the lawsuit.

"The plaintiffs do not believe that the signature on the change in beneficiary is their father's signature," the lawsuit reads.

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.

When the life insurance company received the form — along with the fact that the children don't believe the signature on the change of beneficiary form is actually their father's — was one of many elements under dispute.

"They received it during his life one way or another," Birchman attorney Randall Schmdit argued at the September 2 hearing.

Although the divorce decree didn't say that Sean Rafferty was able to change the beneficiaries from his children once they turned 18, the judge ruled in May that Rafferty was able to do so. Sean Paul and Scarlette's attorney, William Brotherton, contested this ruling, but the judge was unmoved.

To combat the forged signature claim, Schmidt submitted a signed affidavit from the former church comptroller Gayle Pate validating Rafferty's signature. "Birchman Baptist Church would sure love for this matter to come to a close, as it has gone on way too long due to extraneous matters," Schmidt said.

Interestingly, this is not the first time Pate and Birchman have been accused of conspiring together to financially benefit from a troubled congregant. In 2003, Linda Reed named Pate in a lawsuit against Birchman and Pate's daughter, Karla Bradley, for $30,000 belonging to Reed's dementia-addled father. Reed eventually dropped the suit.

Despite a number of complications in the Rafferty lawsuit, Judge Ramirez seemed uninterested in entertaining arguments against the church. When plaintiffs' attorney Shawn Brotherton presented her case for why the dead man's adult children should receive the life insurance proceeds, the judge rolled his eyes.

"Clearly as it is expressed, the children could be the only beneficiaries of this policy," Brotherton argued. "The court modified the literal language of the divorce decree."

In the end, Birchman's attorney didn't even offer a rebuttal. Ramirez then announced his ruling so hastily that both parties had to ask for a clarification to understand what had transpired.

Schmidt declined to comment on the case or answer questions about Birchman's previous involvement in similar lawsuits.