The Court of Appeals recently released its opinion in the Estate of Stanley Morris. Click on the name to read the case.
There’s a lot here, and a lot of what, in my opinion, is new law or at least clarifications. Someone put some time into researching and writing this opinion, and I will try to do it justice with my analysis.
The Card v the Contract
The case is about whether the money in a bank account that Dad made joint with Daughter, and which Daughter drained on her own expenses during his life, can be recouped by the Estate as misappropriated funds.
The trial court saw this is a “convenience account” case. It ruled that the Executor of the Estate failed to provide evidence to overcome the burden it had to show that when the account was made joint, Dad intended the Daughter to obtain all the rights of an owner, and therefore was entitled to withdraw all the funds.
However, the COA points out that no evidence of the creation of the joint account was entered into evidence at trial, only that the Daughter’s name began appearing on the account at some point prior to her withdrawals. The COA further explains that while it appears this was accomplished when Daughter signed a signature card (which was not admitted as evidence) adding her name to the account, a signature card is not the same as an account contract that conforms with the statutory requirements for a joint account with rights of survivorship. Accordingly, the COA explains, the trial court erred in applying the statutory presumption and that the trial court must revisit the issue and analyze the case under the theories of conversion and unjust enrichment (constructive trust).
The COA also looked at statements of the deceased father which were introduced at trial, to determine whether the statements were admissible in light of the fact that they were made subsequent to the creation of the joint account. While statements of “intent” provide an exception to hearsay exclusion rules, case law has long held that in joint account cases, statements of the original owner’s intentions made subsequent to the creation of the account are inadmissible. Here however the COA held that these statements could be considered for the reason that the party now seeking to exclude them had originally solicited similar testimony and did not object when the testimony it now challenged was offered by witnesses for the opposing party. Hearsay issues in probate litigation matters are as tricky as they come. The statements of dead people are often the best evidence of what was intended, but getting those statements into the record requires careful strategizing, if it can be accomplished at all. Hearsay issues should be outlined in advance of trial, with a plan for admitting the beneficial statements, and arguments for excluding those that hurt your case. The lesson here for parties involved in these cases is to tread carefully, and make sure that your own enthusiasm in soliciting testimony doesn’t come back to bite you.
This is a lengthy case, but the analysis provided is excellent, and worth a read for anyone involved in probate litigation. If nothing else it provides a clear guide for the factual and legal basis involved in litigating joint account cases – making a clear distinction as to when the presumption of survivorship rights applies, when it does not, and explaining the legal theories that remain when the statutory rules are not in play.
Obviously, I think this should be a published case. Unfortunately, by the time I saw the opinion and contacted the attorneys involved (who would have standing to make such a request), the deadline for requesting publication had passed. Shout out to Troy Attorney Joe Dadich and Redford Attorney Murray Muscat for a well litigated matter. Best of luck to each of you on remand.