Cowman v. Rogers (Md. 1891): Islamic Inheritance Law

Holding: When multiple family members die in the same event, such as a natural disaster, the named beneficiary of an insurance policy is prima facie presumed the recipient of the payout unless another claimant can show that the beneficiary died in the event before the policy holder. Here, both the policy holder and his wife, who was his beneficiary, died in a flood, and without evidence showing that his wife predeceased him, the policy holder’s sister could not claim the insurance payout.

Procedural Posture: An insurance company filed interpleader in the Circuit Court of Baltimore City against the claimants of a life insurance payout. The Court found that the payout should go to the administrator of the deceased’s children. The deceased’s sister and the administrator of the deceased’s wife’s estate each appealed. Islamic law is not directly relevant, except that the court compares the American system to “the Mahometan law of India,” which it understands to presume in inheritance cases that relatives who died in the same event, such as a natural disaster, died at the same moment.

Judgment: Affirmed in part and reversed in part in an opinion authored by Justice McSherry.

Facts: Walter Hoopes, his wife Maria Hoopes, and their two children died in a flood in May 1889. Walter Hoopes had life insurance and named his wife as his beneficiary. According to the insurance regulations, should his wife pre-decease him, the payout was to go to his children; if they did not survive him, the payout was to go to his mother, then to his father, and finally to his siblings. After their deaths, Walter Hoopes’ sister, the administrator of Maria Hoopes, and the administrator of the children claimed rights to the insurance payout. The Court of Appeals of Maryland noted first that other legal systems, including Roman law, the Napoleonic Code, “the Mahometan law of India,” and ancient Danish law employed various presumptions based on age, gender, and time to help courts determine the survivorship order when multiple family members died at the same time or in the same event. However, it concluded that the American common law system has no such presumptions, and survivorship “must be proved by the party asserting it.” In this case, there was no evidence or way to know who predeceased whom in the flood. Because the wife, as the named beneficiary, had prima facie title to the insurance payout, her estate’s title could only be extinguished by a satisfactory showing by Walter Hoopes’ sister that the wife died before Walter. There is nothing in the record to indicate this was the case, so, the Court concluded, the payout belongs to the wife’s estate.

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