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Jointly titled bank accounts are often the source of much confusion … and litigation … once one of the title holders dies. A classic example of this type of litigation is when an elderly parent puts a child’s name on an account for convenience purposes and then that child does something unexpected … like looting the account.

Case study: Julia v. Russo, — So.2d —-, 2008 WL 1883905 (Fla. 4th DCA Apr 30, 2008):

In the linked-to case the facts are a bit more dramatic than usual. In this case boyfriend put his girlfriend’s name on an investment account and a bank account as “joint tenants with right of survivorship.” The accounts were funded 100% by boyfriend. Girlfriend shot and killed boyfriend. Boyfriend’s estate makes the following two-step argument against girlfriend getting any of the assets in these accounts.

Step 1: Slayer Statute = Joint Tenant’s Survivorship Rights Extinguished

Boyfriend’s estate argued that girlfriends rights of survivorship were extinguished under Florida’s Slayer Statute, F.S. 732.802(2). Here’s how the 4th DCA stated the argument:

If the Slayer Statute is applied, appellant’s right of survivorship is extinguished and the accounts became tenancies in common at the time the decedent died. See Capoccia v. Capoccia, 505 So.2d 624 (Fla. 3d DCA 1987).

Unfortunately for boyfriend’s estate, the trial court’s order did not contain findings necessary to sustain a slayer-statute ruling, so the 4th DCA reversed this part of the trial court’s order.

[T]he trial court erred in granting the Estate access to the account. For purposes of ruling on appellant’s motion, the Slayer Statute was assumed to apply. There has yet to be an evidentiary hearing or any fact finding determination that appellant unlawfully and intentionally killed John Russo. Should there be such a factual determination, then and only then, would these assets pass to the Estate.

Step 2: Rebut presumption that accounts held by tenants in common are owned 50/50

In order to obtain 100% of the account funds for boyfriend’s estate, not only must girlfriend’s survivorship rights be extinguished, but the presumption that tenants in common own accounts 50/50 also had to be overcome. Boyfriend’s estate won on this point.

“In absence of evidence to the contrary, co-tenants are presumed to owe [sic] equal undivided interests.” Levy v. Docktor, 185 B.R. 378, 381 (S.D.Fla.1995). “[U]pon the death of a cotenant, the deceased cotenant’s interest in the property subject to the tenancy in common passes to his or her heirs, and not to the surviving cotenant.” 12 Fla. Jur.2d Cotenancy and Partition § 4 (1998). See, e.g., Reinhardt v. Diedricks, 439 So.2d 936, 937 (Fla. 3d DCA 1983).

The “equal share presumption” applied to tenancies in common may be rebutted by proof of unequal contribution and the absence of intent to confer a gift. See Estate of Dern Family Trust, 279 Mont. 138, 928 P.2d 123, 131-32 (Mont.1996).

As found by the trial court, appellant did not contribute any of her own funds to the accounts at issue and the decedent trusted her not to steal from him. Appellant accessed the accounts only at the behest of the decedent. The trial court specifically concluded that the decedent did not intend to make a gift to appellant of any of the money in either account.

This evidence clearly rebuts the presumption of equal contribution and the trial court correctly concluded that appellant was not entitled to any portion of the two accounts assuming the application of the Slayer Statute.

Lesson learned?

The trial court was partially reversed in this case for failing to support its slayer-statute ruling on the necessary findings of intentional and unlawful killing by girlfriend. I would assume that girlfriend is at the very least the subject of a criminal investigation in connection shooting and killing boyfriend. Until that criminal investigation gets resolved in some way, I don’t see how the probate court can proceed with the civil action before it.

So why didn’t the parties simply freeze the accounts until state prosecutors finished doing their job? Criminal prosecution first, slayer-statute ruling second, is the way it’s usually done. Also, staying civil proceedings that overlap with criminal proceedings is common. Acting hastily with respect to a slayer-statute ruling may just end up getting you reversed on appeal . . . as the parties in this case learned.