Case Illustrates Importance of Bank Account Details

A case from the Tyler Court of Appeals back in 2017 recently caught my attention   Hare v. Longstreet offers a good reminder that the way one sets up a bank account can have important consequences down the road, and there are specific rules related to joint accounts of which people need to be aware.

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In 1998, L.D. Hare opened a checking account in his name at Austin Bank.  In 2000, he added Sherry Longstreet to the account.  In 2015, he added his son, Larry Hare, to the same account.  Later in 2015, L.D. passed away.

Austin Bank filed a petition seeing instruction from the court on whether the funds in the account would be disbursed to Larry or to Sherry.  Larry claimed the funds should pass to him as the account contained right of surviorship in his favor.  Longstreet claimed the account should pass through probate and be distributed as instructed in L.D.’s will.

The decision hinged on the court’s interpretation of a signature card.  On that card, a section labeled “Ownership of Account” provided generally that the type of account selected might determine how property passes at death and that one’s will might not control.  It then presented nine options, including one that read “Multiple-Party Account with Right of Survivorship.”  Both L.D. and Larry initialed next to this box, and the signature card was signed by all three account holders.  Larry contended that his indicated his father’s intent to create a joint account with right of survivorship and for Larry to receive the funds in the account a his father’s death.

After trial, the court held that the account should pass through probate because there was insufficient evidence to prove that the parties intended to create a joint account with right of survivorship.  Thus, the money in the account should pass through probate to Linda Longstreet.  Larry appealed this ruling.

Law on Joint Accounts

The Texas Estate Code Section 113.151 governs the creation of right of survivorship joint accounts.  The court explained that there are three requirements by statute that a party must satisfy in order to create a joint account with right of survivorship: (1) a written agreement; (2) signed by the decedent; (3) which specifies that his interest ‘survives’ to the other party.  This written agreement is sufficient to confer a right of survivorship if it contains a statement “substantially similar” to the following:  “On the death of one party to a joint account, all sums in the account on the date of death vest in and belong to the surviving party as his or her separate property and estate.”   Further, the Texas Legislature has provided form language for use by financial institutions when a person creates a multi-party account that allows them to initial next to language stating the following:  “MULTIPLE-PARTY ACCOUNT WITH RIGHT OF SURVIVORSHIP. The parties to the account own the account in proportion to the parties’ net contributions to the account. The financial institution may pay any sum in the account to a party at any time. On the death of a party, the party’s ownership of the account passes to the surviving parties.”  The statute provides that the mere fact someone opened a joint account, alone, does not infer their intent to include survivorship rights.

Appellate Court Opinion

The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision, holding that there was insufficient evidence to establish an account with right of survivorship. [Read opinion here.]

The court found that the signature card met this first two requirements of a joint account with right of survivorship–it was a written agreement signed by L.D. Hare.  The issue, however, is whether the signature card included language specifying that the interest was to survive to the other party.  In other words, did the signature card contain language “substantially similar” to the language required by the Estates Code?

The court previously held that placing an X on a box on a signature card next to proper right of survivorship language on a signature card could satisfy the requirements.  Here, however, the issue was that the statement contained next to the box that L.D. Hare selected and initialed did not contain sufficient language to create a right of survivorship.  The court held that the Estates Code requires the use of “explanatory language” that expressly states the ownership interest of the deceased joint owner will belong to the surviving parties upon death.  Without such explanatory language, the signature card in this case did not confer survivorship rights.

No Petition for Review was filed with the Texas Supreme Court.

Take Aways

First and foremost, this case is a good reminder for folks to check their own bank accounts and determine exactly how they are held and confirm that the current set up is the one desired by the account holders.  Oftentimes, a person creates an account and then lives on for decades.  Although time changes many circumstances, that person may not think to go back and review the way the account is set up.  As this case illustrates, that can have major implications for who inherits assets at death.  Second, for any accounts intended to be set up with survivorship rights, account holders should confirm that there is written documentation, signed by both parties, expressly stating that desire and including explanatory language substantially similar to that included in the Estates Code.  Even titling an account “with right of survivorship” may not be enough to carry out the decedent’s wishes absent the explanatory language as well.

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