SEPTEMBER 8, 2003 VOLUME 11, NUMBER 10
When individuals look for ways to simplify the handling of their estates, they frequently decide to simply put their heirs’ names on assets. Parents, for example, often make their children joint owners on bank accounts—reasoning that the money will then be easier to get to if needed, and no probate proceeding will be necessary for the children to get the accounts after the parent’s death. There are dangers, of course, in creating joint tenancy accounts. A recent Connecticut case illustrates one of those dangers and also provides insight into how the law views joint tenancy bank accounts.
Salvatore Vessichio may have had probate avoidance in mind when he added the names of his two daughters, Charlene Vessichio and Sally Ann Durso, to his BankBoston account three years ago. When Mr. Vessichio died a short time later, Charlene Vessichio went to the bank, withdrew the entire account balance, paid for her father’s funeral, and placed the remaining proceeds in a brokerage account in her own name.
Her sister, Ms. Durso, demanded her half of the account. Ms. Vessichio refused to turn it over, pointing to a Connecticut state statute which specifically authorized the bank to release a joint tenancy account to any one of the joint tenants. Ms. Durso then filed a lawsuit against her sister.
The trial court concluded that Ms. Durso and Ms. Vessichio had owned an equal interest in the bank account, but that payment of Mr. Vessichio’s funeral expenses was a legitimate use of the money. The court ordered Ms. Vessichio to return half of the remaining account balance to her sister. The Connecticut Court of Appeals agreed, noting that the statute on which Ms. Vessichio relied was really intended to protect the bank from claims by joint tenants, not to protect the joint tenants from claims against one another. Durso v. Vessichio, August 26, 2003.
Arizona law is very similar. The presumption is that joint tenancy property is owned equally among all joint tenants, but that each named account owner is entitled to manage the entire account. That is one reason that placing a child’s name on an account as a joint tenant is dangerous—Ms. Vessichio could have withdrawn the entire account and held the proceeds in her own name even before her father died, thereby depriving him of his own funds.
When one joint tenant has contributed more than his or her share of a joint account, however, the interests of the joint tenants are proportional to their actual contributions. In other words, in an action against Ms. Vessichio by her father he should have been able to secure return of the entire account, not just a one-third interest. Her ability to withdraw the account balance, however, would have put him through a legal proceeding to establish his rights.