Opinion 2000 - 16


This opinion represents the views of the Office of the State Comptroller at the time it was rendered. The opinion may no longer represent those views if, among other things, there have been subsequent court cases or statutory amendments that bear on the issues discussed in the opinion.

FOREIGN FIRE INSURANCE TAXES -- Exempt Volunteer Firemen's Benevolent Association (beneficiaries under group life insurance policy); (meaning of "family" as used in special acts); (use of tax moneys by to purchase group life insurance)

WORDS AND PHRASES -- "Family" (meaning for purposes of foreign fire insurance tax special acts)

INSURANCE LAW 9104, 9105: When an exempt firefighters' benevolent association is required to use foreign fire insurance tax monies for the care and relief of indigent and disabled firefighters and their families, and uses such monies to purchase a group life insurance policy for the members of the association, the members of the association must designate "family" members as beneficiaries. The association has discretion to interpret the word "families" as including persons not related to a member of the association by blood, marriage or adoption, but any such interpretation must consider factors that are "normal familial characteristics," such as the exclusivity and longevity of relationships, the level of financial and emotional commitment, the manner in which the parties conduct their everyday lives and hold themselves out to society, and the reliance placed upon one another for daily family services.

You ask whether an exempt firefighters' benevolent association that has utilized foreign fire insurance tax monies to purchase a group life insurance policy covering the members of the association may permit a member to designate as his or her beneficiary a person not related to the member by blood, marriage or adoption.

Sections 9104 and 9105 of the Insurance Law govern the distribution and use of foreign fire insurance tax monies, except as otherwise provided in any special law. Therefore, when an exempt firefighters' benevolent association is established pursuant to a special act of the State Legislature, and is authorized to receive direct payment of foreign fire insurance tax monies, the monies may be expended only in the manner prescribed by the special act (see, e.g., 1999 Opns St Comp No. 99-3, p 5; 1997 Opns St Comp No. 97-4, p 8; 1995 Opns St Comp No. 95-26, p 53).

The exempt firefighters' benevolent association at issue is governed by a special act of the State Legislature which added section 617.0 to the Nassau County Civil Divisions Act (L 1940, ch 73). Insofar as it relates to the expenditure of foreign fire insurance tax monies, section 617.0 provides:

Such taxes shall only be used for the care and relief of disabled or indigent volunteer and exempt volunteer firemen and their families (emphasis added).

Similar language appears in most special acts governing exempt firefighters' benevolent associations.

In 1983 Opns St Comp No. 83-120, p. 151, we construed language identical to the above quoted language that appeared in another special act as authorizing an exempt firefighters' benevolent association to expend foreign fire insurance tax monies to purchase a group life insurance policy for all of the firefighters who are potential members of the association. In reaching this conclusion, we also stated that because the history of the foreign fire insurance tax indicates that these monies are intended to benefit firefighters and their "families," the firefighters insured under such a policy must designate "family" members as beneficiaries. The opinion, however, does not discuss the meaning of the word "family." Further, we are not aware of any statute or other controlling authority which defines the term "families" for purposes of similar special acts.

It is a general rule of statutory construction that words of ordinary import used in a statute should be given their usual and commonly understood meaning, unless it is plain from the statute that a different meaning is intended (McKinney's Statutes 232; see also 1980 Opns St Comp No. 80-86, p 280). When a word is susceptible of two or more significations, however, the meaning to be given must be determined from the context of the statute and its purpose (see McKinney's Statutes 235).

The word "family" does not appear to have a single commonly understood meaning. For example, the American Heritage Dictionary defines "family" first as "a fundamental social group in society consisting [especially] of a man and woman and their offspring" (The American Heritage Dictionary 488 [Second College Edition, 1985]). By way of contrast, Webster's Dictionary defines the word "family" first, and more broadly, as "a group of individuals living under one roof and [usually] under one head" (Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary 448 [1989]).

The lack of a single commonly understood definition of the word "family" is also evident from court cases in various contexts (see, e.g., Braschi v Stahl Associates Company, 74 NY2d 201, 544 NYS2d 784 [rent control]; McMinn v Town of Oyster Bay, 66 NY2d 544, 498 NYS2d 128 [zoning]; City of White Plains v Ferraiolli, 34 NY2d 300, 357 NYS2d 449 [zoning]; see also Rent Stabilization Association of New York City v Higgins, 83 NY2d 156, 608 NYS2d 930 [rent stabilization]; Slattery v City of New York, 179 Misc 2d 740, 686 NYS2d 683, appeal transferred 93 NY2d 883, 689 NYS2d 426 [employee health and retirement benefits]; In re Tefft's Will, n.o.r., 130 NYS 2d 192 [interpretation of wills]; People v Whitted, n.o.r., 124 NYS2d 189 [Multiple Dwelling Law]; Stafford v Incorporated Village of Sands Point, 200 Misc 57, 102 NYS2d 910 [zoning]; In re Keegan's Estate, n.o.r., 37 NYS2d 368 [interpretation of wills]; In re Schmidt's Estate, 159 Misc 373, 289 NYS 247 [intestate distribution]; see also 71 ALR 3rd 693 [zoning]; 88 ALR2d 890 [decedents' estates]). More recent cases, however, have tended to construe the word "family" as not being limited to relationships based on blood, marriage or adoption. Instead, these cases have adopted a broader construction of the word "family," based on an objective examination of interpersonal relationships involving an assessment of factors such as the exclusivity and longevity of the relationship, the level of emotional and financial commitment, the manner in which the parties have conducted their everyday lives and hold themselves out to society, and the reliance placed upon one another for daily family services (Braschi v Stahl Associates Company, supra). These cases have concluded that the term "family" can be construed as including "households having all of the normal familial characteristics" (id. at 74 NY2d 201 at 211, 544 NYS2d 784 at 789). Thus, under appropriate circumstances, a "family" has been held to include, for example, adult lifetime partners (id.; see also Slattery v City of New York, supra), as well as foster children (City of White Plains v Ferraiolli, supra).

The history of the foreign fire insurance tax also suggests that in the absence of a statutory definition, a broad reading of the word "families" is not precluded. In Trustees of the Exempt Firemen's Benevolent Fund v Roome, 93 NY 313 [1883], a case upholding the constitutionality of early legislation relating to the distribution and use of foreign fire insurance tax monies, the Court traced the development of both the fire service in this State and the application of the foreign fire insurance tax to the fire service. From this history, it is apparent that the application of the foreign fire tax to the fire service was intended to supplement earlier private efforts by the fire service to provide funds for "men who were maimed and crippled in the public service, and widows and orphans deprived of their natural protectors and reduced to poverty and want" (93 NY 313 at 320). Although the reference to "widows and orphans" could be read to suggest a narrow reading of the word "families" as used in later special acts governing distribution and use of the proceeds of the tax, we believe that the Court, in the parlance of the day, was speaking more generically of the worthiness of compensating those who rely on a firefighter for support. This is borne out by other passages in the decision in which the Court more generally speaks of payment of these moneys as "relief of deserving beneficiaries" (93 NY 313 at 327), and as "an honorable obligation founded upon [firefighters'] past services and the injuries and suffering which those had occasioned" (93 NY 313 at 326).

Based on the foregoing, we believe that the association has discretion to interpret the word "families" so as to permit a member of the organization to name as beneficiaries on a group life insurance policy paid for with foreign fire insurance tax monies certain persons not related to that individual by blood, marriage or adoption. We also believe, however, that any such interpretation must be consistent with recent judicial interpretations of the word "family."  Therefore, it is also our opinion that the interpretation of the word "families" must consider factors that are "normal familial characteristics," such as the exclusivity and longevity of relationships, the level of financial and emotional commitment, the manner in which the parties conduct their everyday lives and hold themselves out to society, and the reliance placed upon one another for daily "family" services.

October 23, 2000
Ely Altarac, Secretary
Exempt Firemen's Benevolent Association
of the City of Long Beach, Inc.