This week we looked for cases (and stories) illustrating important principles from probate court. We found a surprising batch of cases, and wanted to share them all. Hence this probate potpourri. We have four cases (from California, Louisiana, Maine, and New York) to share with you.
California: “right of survivorship” may not mean what it says
Ralph Placencia died in 2009. He left a will, a trust, and a brokerage account titled as “joint tenants with right of survivorship” with his daughter Lisa. Ralph’s will expressly said he didn’t want Lisa to receive the brokerage account. He wanted it to go into his trust, to be divided among all three of his daughters.
The broker paid the account out to Lisa, as the joint tenancy title required. Lisa refused to turn over the proceeds. The sisters took their dispute to the courts.
The California trial judge ruled that Ralph’s clear express of his wishes should control. Though the general rule is that title to a financial account determines its disposition, in this case Ralph had been very clear. Lisa was ordered to transfer the account to the trust (Lisa, incidentally, was one of the two trustees of Ralph’s trust).
The California Court of Appeals mostly agreed. Though California’s law on multi-party accounts would suggest that Lisa was the owner of the account, that statute is mostly to protect banks and brokers from having to figure out the succession issues. Ralph’s will could (and did) change the result.
The appellate court did disagree with the trial court on one point. Ralph’s will would need to be probated in order to effect its instructions. That means the account would have to transfer first to Ralph’s probate estate and then to his trust. The account would be subject to probate costs and (possibly) Ralph’s creditors’ claims. Placencia v. Strazicich, November 26, 2019.
Louisiana: the probate judge doesn’t get to challenge a will
John Barbee was one of those folks who regularly changed his will. When he died in 2016, his widow submitted the last of those documents (a 2014 will) to the probate court. His daughter agreed that it should be admitted to probate.
The probate judge, however, thought the will looked suspect. She ruled that John’s purported signature on the last will and his previous signature “varied drastically.” She refused to admit John’s 2014 will to probate.
John’s wife and daughter both appealed, and the Louisiana Court of Appeal agreed with them. The probate judge shouldn’t have challenged John’s signature sua sponte (on its own motion).
The appellate court noted that the will was properly witnessed and notarized. The lawyer who drafted the various wills also submitted an affidavit that it really was John’s signature. The probate court exceeded its authority. Succession of Barbee, November 27, 2019.
Maine: property can be deeded out of an estate as joint tenancy
Ruth Clark died back in 2009. She left two parcels of real estate to her two surviving children. Her will directed that the bequest was to the two “equally share and share alike.”
Ruth’s daughter Beth was personal representative of the estate. After discussions with her brother Kevin and the estate’s lawyer, she deeded the property to herself and Kevin as “joint tenants with right of survivorship.”
Kevin died seven years later. He had no will, no spouse and no children. The joint tenancy property passed directly to Beth by right of survivorship.
Beth’s two nephews (children of Ruth’s third child, who had died before her) challenged the joint tenancy deed. They argued that Ruth’s will immediately transferred to Beth and Kevin as tenants in common, and that Beth lacked any authority to create a joint tenancy.
If the nephews were correct, Beth would still own her one-half interest in the properties. She would also receive half of her brother Kevin’s share. The other one-half share, though, would pass to the two nephews; they would each have a one-eighth interest in the properties.
The trial court ruled that the joint tenancy deed was proper, and Beth owns the entirety of both properties. The Maine Supreme Court agreed, and confirmed Beth’s ownership. Continuing our probate potpourri theme, the Maine court relied heavily on a recent North Dakota Supreme Court decision. Clark v. Clark, November 26, 2019.
New York: complainant must produce some evidence
Norma Cook died in 2012. Her will left a farmhouse to her granddaughter Lisa, a second parcel to her two grandsons, and the balance of her estate to the three of them equally.
Rollin, one of her grandsons, initially challenged the will. His objections were overruled, and he did not appeal.
When his sister Lisa filed her final estate accounting, Rollin objected. He pointed out that Lisa had managed their grandmother’s assets for several years before her death. He argued that she might have misappropriated some funds that should be returned to the estate.
After extensive discovery, the New York surrogates court held a hearing. The only witness to testify was Lisa, though extensive records were admitted for the court’s review. The surrogate court ruled that, though Lisa was not a particularly good bookkeeper, there was no evidence that she had taken any of her grandmother’s money.
Rollin appealed. He argued that the significant withdrawals of cash, and her suggestion that she had considered possible Medicaid planning for Norma, compelled a finding that she had taken funds.
The New York appellate court upheld the surrogate’s decision. Noting that the amount in controversy was about $45,000, the appellate court found the lower court decision appropriate. Although Lisa had the burden of proving her account, Rollin’s failure to produce any evidence (or even testify) meant that he had not carried his burden. Estate of Cook, November 27, 2019.
Would our probate potpourri end up the same way in Arizona courts?
Would the cases in our probate potpourri have turned out differently in Arizona courts? Mostly we would predict the same outcomes. Of course every case is actually distinct and the testimony might have come out with different shadings or inferences.
The Maine decision, as one example, is expressly based on that state’s version of the Uniform Probate Code. North Dakota, where the case Maine cites was decided, is also a Uniform Probate Code state, as is Arizona.
Arizona’s law may differ more significantly from New York, Louisiana and California’s respective probate codes, but the inferences would probably be similar. California’s statute on multi-party accounts, for instance, is quite similar to Arizona’s statute. Other-state decisions often give some suggestion of Arizona’s likely court outcomes.