Unusual Lawsuits

Judge backpedals on controversial ruling in favor of Fort Worth mega church

Judge backpedals on controversial ruling in favor of Fort Worth church

Birchman Baptist Church
Fort Worth's Birchman Baptist Church is fighting two former congregants for the rights to their dead father's estate. Photo via Facebook

Nearly two months after awarding a $100,000 life insurance policy to a Fort Worth mega church and not the deceased man's children, Denton County judge Robert Ramirez has had a change of heart — sort of. In a breathless order fraught with typos, Ramirez said he was "premature in granting a summary judgment" in favor of Birchman Baptist Church. 

Scarlette Rafferty Elliot and Sean Rafferty were the designated beneficiaries of their father's life insurance up until just 24 hours before his death. After meeting with Birchman senior pastor Bob Pearle on June 24, 2013, Sean C. Rafferty signed over his life insurance policy to the church; he committed suicide on June 25. His adult children are suing the church for the remaining $85,000 in benefits from the policy.

 The judge ruled that Mr. Rafferty's children have a right to bring fraud charges against Birchman Baptist for coaxing a suicidal man into changing his life insurance policy.

Ramirez's October 23 ruling states that Birchman Baptist has the rights to the policy, but Scarlette and Sean's lawsuit against the church can move forward to trial based on a fraud claim.

"Although we're quite perplexed by the court's rulings on the summary judgments, the court has made its decision. We are reviewing our options, and we will be moving forward," says William Brotherton, Scarlette and Sean's attorney.

After Ramirez initially ruled in favor of Birchman, the church had vowed to go after the dead man's children for attorney's fees. In light of the judge's backtracking, the issue of attorney's fees has been tabled as well. 

Ramirez ruled that although Birchman was the proper beneficiary, Mr. Rafferty's children have a right to bring fraud charges against the church for coaxing a suicidal man into changing his life insurance policy. 

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 died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Adding to the complication of the case is the fact that a 2010 divorce decree mandated that Sean C. Rafferty designate his children as the beneficiaries of his life insurance. Brotherton argued that the decree clearly stated that Mr. Rafferty did not have the right to change beneficiaries. Ramirez, however, sided with Birchman Baptist attorney Randall "Skipper" Schmidt, who said that the divorce decree didn't apply once the children reached the age of 18. 

When reached by phone, Schmidt did not immediately know whether or not he was authorized to comment on the case. We will update this story if and when he responds. 

Meanwhile, Brotherton is moving forward with requests to depose Pastor Pearle and a handful of other church employees. "Our fraud claim is still alive," Brotherton says.