Joseph v. Chanin, 940 So.2d 483, 31 Fla. L. Weekly D2470 (Fla. 4th DCA Oct 04, 2006)

The linked-to opinion is an excellent case study on exactly how to address a question that comes up ALL THE TIME in probate disputes: what to do when someone takes money from a joint bank account that he or she shouldn’t have and wont give it back when caught red handed.  This appellate opinion serves up the kind of bread-and-butter guidance that makes it easier for judges and attorneys to do their jobs.  No flowery prose or needless digressions.  Just concrete application of the law to a particular set of facts.

Problem:

Assume "A" and "B" live together for years, co-mingling their finances and paying shared expenses out of a single jointly titled checking account.  Assume further that A was siphoning off funds from this account to a separate savings account for "C," his daughter.  Finally, assume A dies, B finds out about the side account funded for C, and C refuses to give the money back.

Solution: B sues C for "Conversion"

That’s what the plaintiff did in the linked-to case, winning both at trial and on appeal before the 4th DCA.  Here’s the road map drawn by the 4th DCA for future litigants faced with a similar set of facts:

  • Step 1 (B vs. A):  Establish  initial liability of joint account holder.

One joint tenant may bring a conversion action against another joint tenant who wrongfully appropriates more than his share of the money from a joint tenancy account. See Hamilton v. Trapp, 392 So.2d 1001 (Fla. 4th DCA 1981); Allen, 429 So.2d at 371; Nationsbank, 814 So.2d at 1230. Placement of the money into the AmTrust account made it “capable of identification,” Belford Trucking, 243 So.2d at 648, so that Chanin could have sued Meyer Joseph or his estate for conversion from the pooled checking account.

  • Step 2 (B vs. C): Establish liability of third-party who received wrongfully withdrawn funds and refuses to give them back.

As the beneficiary of the funds in the AmTrust account, Barbara Joseph could be held liable for conversion if she exercised dominion over the funds, knowing of Chanin’s claim. See Goodwin v. Alexatos, 584 So.2d 1007, 1011 (Fla. 5th DCA 1991) (citing Wilson Cypress Co. v. Logan, 120 Fla. 124, 162 So. 489 (1935), for the proposition that “[t]he recipient of converted property is liable to the rightful owner in an action for conversion”). Thus, Barbara Joseph became liable for conversion once she refused Chanin’s request to return the money in the AmTrust account. See Uhl v. Holbruner, 146 Fla. 133, 136, 200 So. 359 (1941) (donee liable for conversion where donor of converted bonds had “no title” to convey and donee refused demand to return them); Restatement (Second) Torts §§ 223, 229, 237 (1965).FN3 By such act, Barbara Joseph exercised dominion over the funds inconsistent with Chanin’s right to possess them.

  • Step 3 (B vs. Judge): Last but not least, make sure your trial judge understand the underlying theory of your case.

A finding that a conversion occurred is consistent with the view that “the essence of an action for conversion is not the acquisition of property by the wrongdoer, but rather the refusal to surrender the possession of the subject personalty after demand for possession by one entitled thereto.” Murrell v. Trio Towing Serv., Inc., 294 So.2d 331, 332 (Fla. 3d DCA 1974) (citing 89 C.J.S. Trover and Conversion § 3 (1955); 18 Am.Jur.2d Conversion § 43 (1965)). The demand by the rightful owner gives “the person in possession actual notice of the rights of the person who is legally entitled to possession.” Ernie Passeos, Inc. v. O’Halloran, 855 So.2d 106, 109 (Fla. 2d DCA 2003).