Claim Against UTMA Custodian For Taking Funds Filed Too Late

Allan Levine thought it was a good idea to set aside some money for his young grandchildren, Derek and Danielle Levine, and so in 1987 he established investment accounts for them. He used a popular and easy way of setting aside the money—he created accounts under the Uniform Transfers to Minors Act, or UTMA, listing himself as custodian. Apparently, however, Mr. Levine did not understand that the UTMA accounts really belonged to his grandchildren.

In December, 1995, Mr. Levine withdrew almost $125,000 from the two accounts and placed the proceeds into his own living trust. That trust provided that it would benefit Mr. Levine for the rest of his life, and that it would go to his wife Karen Levine upon his death. In other words, Derek and Danielle Levine would no longer receive any portion of the money that had been set aside for them.

Mr. Levine died in 1999. Because he had established a living trust, there was no probate required—his entire estate passed directly to his widow. His granddaughter Danielle was 17 at the time of his death, and grandson Derek had just turned 18 four months earlier.

Eighteen months after Mr. Levine’s death his grandchildren sued his widow, claiming that they were entitled to a portion of the money she had received from their grandfather’s trust. She moved to dismiss, not because he had the right to withdraw money from the UTMA accounts but because state law bars suits filed more than one year after the death of the defendant, and the grandchildren’s claim was really against Mr. Levine’s estate. The trial judge dismissed the lawsuit.

The general rule is that the claim of a minor is not foreclosed while he or she is still a minor. Danielle Levine argued before the California Court of Appeals that she had filed her lawsuit less than one year after reaching her majority, and that she should be allowed to prove that her grandfather had breached his duty to her by taking back his gift. The Court of Appeals disagreed and allowed the dismissal to stand. Levine v. Levine, October 17, 2002.

Mr. Levine’s behavior was not all that uncommon. Parents and grandparents often set up UTMA accounts for their offspring, then later decide they want their money back. Had Derek and Danielle Levine filed their lawsuit against their grandfather before his death, or against his estate within one year after his death, they would probably have prevailed; the UTMA money was not Mr. Levine’s to do with as he pleased, even though he was still listed as custodian on the accounts.

Arizona, like California, has adopted the UTMA—and the rules are similar in Arizona. Some states (and some older accounts) may still refer to the predecessor to the UTMA—the Uniform Gifts to Minors Act or UGMA. The rules governing UGMA accounts will also be similar. Money set aside in a UTMA (or UGMA) account no longer belongs to the donor, even if he or she remains as custodian.

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