Beane v. Suntrust Banks, Inc., — So.3d —-, 2010 WL 4483472 (Fla. 4th DCA Nov 10, 2010)
Estate planners and probate lawyers come across in-trust-for or “ITF” bank accounts (also known as Totten trusts) all the time. But if you actually try to dig into the Florida law defining these accounts, don’t expect to find much. Which is why this case is interesting: it’s all about what Totten trusts are, and just as importantly, what they’re NOT.
SunTrust was sued for having transferred $150,000 out of a Totten trust account based on the following power of attorney:
In 2002, the decedent, Lillian Wilde, executed a durable power of attorney naming her niece, Deborah Lorenzo, as her attorney-in-fact. The durable power of attorney stated:
I, LILLIAN G. WILDE … do hereby constitute and appoint my niece, DEBORAH LORENZO, my true and lawful attorney-in-fact for me in my name, place and stead and in any way which I myself could do if I were personally present with respect to the following matters:
4. To demand, sue for, collect, recover and receive all goods, claims, debts, monies, interest and demands whatsoever now due, or that may hereafter be due, or belong to me….
The next day, Lorenzo, utilizing the power of attorney, transferred $150,000 from Wilde’s Totten trust account at SunTrust Bank, which named Frances Wallin as the beneficiary, to another account in the name of Orson Lorenzo.
Whether SunTrust was on the hook – or not – for the $150,000 transfer depended in large part on whether a Totten trust account was the type of estate-planning instrument covered by F.S. 709.08(7)(b)5. Here’s how the issue was framed by the court:
[T]he appellant relied on section 709.08(7)(b) 5., Florida Statutes (2002), which states that an attorney-in-fact may not “[c]reate, amend, modify, or revoke any document or other disposition effective at the principal’s death or transfer assets to an existing trust created by the principal unless expressly authorized by the power of attorney.” Appellant claimed that a Totten trust is a “disposition effective at the principal’s death.”
The 4th DCA held that a Totten trust account is NOT a “disposition effective at the principal’s death.” Here’s why:
A Totten trust has been defined as “a tentative trust merely, revocable at will, until the depositor dies.” Seymour v. Seymour, 85 So.2d 726, 727 (Fla.1956) (quoting In Re Totten, 179 N.Y. 112, 71 N.E. 748, 752 (1904)). The act of “[p]lacing a bank account in the name of one individual ‘in trust for’ another individual creates a tentative or Totten trust.” Serpa v. N. Ridge Bank, 547 So.2d 199, 200 (Fla. 4th DCA 1989). A Totten trust is different from other trusts in that it is not created with any of the formalities of a trust or will. Further, it is specifically excluded from the provisions and restrictions that apply to revocable trusts under the Florida Trust Code. § 736.0102, Fla. Stat. (2007).
Since an owner of a Totten trust can withdraw from the account without constraint, the prospective Totten trust beneficiary cannot object to the depositor’s withdrawal from the Totten trust. As this court explained:
Like a depositor’s withdrawal of funds from a Totten trust bank account, a settlor/trustee’s withdrawal of funds from a revocable trust is tantamount to a revocation or termination of the trust with respect to the funds withdrawn. It is in this context that [In re Malasky, 290 A.D.2d 631, 736 N.Y.S.2d 151 (N.Y.App.Div.2002)] held that a prospective trust beneficiary has no standing to object to such a disposition of the property; the settlor retained the right to remove the property from the trust for any purpose and for any reason.
Siegel v. Novak, 920 So.2d 89, 95 (Fla. 4th DCA 2006). Because the depositor can change the beneficiary without constraint, and the prospective beneficiary has no standing to object to such changes, we therefore find that merely withdrawing money from the Totten trust does not, as a matter of law, change the “disposition effective at the principal’s death.” The depositor, or in this case the attorney-in-fact, merely changes the amounts within the Totten trust, which is a right retained by the depositor at all times, or by the attorney-in-fact while the durable power of attorney is in force. SunTrust acted in reliance of the power of attorney, so it “must be held harmless by the principal from any loss suffered or liability incurred as a result of actions taken prior to receipt of written notice [of revocation.]” § 709.08(4)(g), Fla. Stat. (2002).