Mrs A Ioannou v Aviva Life Services Limited (previously Norwich Union)(75645/2)
Mr Georgios Andrews (Mr A) took out a pension plan in 1986. His signature on the proposal form was distinctive in numerous respects and mis-spelt “G Anderws”. Mr A could sign his name, but was otherwise illiterate.
In 2005 Aviva received two telephone calls from Mr A’s wife asking how to access the pension. Shortly after the first call, Aviva received a written request: “Further to our telephone conversation, please advise me how to proceed with unlocking my pension.” The letter was purportedly signed by Mr A but there were significant differences between that signature and the proposal form signature. During the second call, Mrs A confirmed that she had no authority to instruct Aviva on Mr A’s behalf. Following receipt of a claim form which bore a materially different signature to that on the proposal form, the pension and lump sum of £6,485 were paid into Mr and Mrs A’s joint account.
Mr A moved out of the family home in August 2005 and directed Aviva to pay his pension into a different account. He divorced his wife in 2006 and made formal allegations of fraud against her, submitting that the forms used to initiate payment of his benefits had not been signed by him. Mr A provided examples of his signature from 1986 and 2005 showing that despite the passage of time, his signature had remained the same. Mr A died before a prosecution could be brought.
His sister brought a complaint to the Pensions Ombudsman against Aviva. Aviva argued that Mr A knew about his pension in August 2005 and so it had discharged its liability to Mr A. The Ombudsman upheld the complaint. Aviva should have identified that Mr A’s purported signatures were not his. As a result, Aviva had not discharged its liability to Mr A under the pension plan. Aviva was ordered to pay to Mr A’s estate the amount the estate would have received on his death had no benefits been paid out. However, Aviva was permitted to deduct the amounts paid out during his lifetime.
This case illustrates what may happen if signed forms are filed by administrators without making reasonable checks. The signatures were so different that had Aviva checked, the discrepancies should have been picked up. It is important that trustees confirm with their administrators that sufficient processes are in place to guard against benefit fraud both in such circumstances and generally.