New York Surrogate’s Court Holds Presumption Under Banking Law § 675 Does Not Apply to Joint Account Claim Made by Decedent’s Brother

The Surrogate’s Court of New York, Oneida County, recently denied a petitioner’s motion for summary judgment seeking to compel the executor to deliver all of the funds withdrawn from a decedent’s accounts to the petitioner, as the alleged surviving joint owner, on grounds that there is insufficient proof to warrant a finding that title to the accounts is vested in the petitioner as the survivor.  See Matter of Sledziona, 56 Misc.3d 1206(A) (Surr. Ct. 2017).  There, the decedent opened two bank accounts in 1971.  He later married and, in July 1995, he and his wife signed a form entitled “Joint Share Account Agreement,” which, among other things, stated that the accounts “shall be owned by them jointly, with the right of survivorship[.]”  The wife died in April 2006.  In November 2014, the decedent and the petitioner, who was the decedent’s brother, signed a document entitled “Account Change Card” which listed the petitioner as “Joint Owner” of the account and the decedent as “Member/Owner.”  Although the form provided checkboxes for the applicants to designate the accounts as either “With Rights of Survivorship” or “Without Rights of Survivorship,” neither box was checked. 

The decedent died in 2015 and his will was admitted to probate in December 2015.  His step-son, in his capacity as executor, withdrew all of the proceeds from the bank accounts.  The petitioner then instituted this proceeding in July 2016 pursuant to New York Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act § 2105, seeking an order compelling the executor to give him all of the funds withdrawn from the accounts.  The petitioner then filed a motion for summary judgment declaring his right to the funds.  The executor cross-moved for summary judgment declaring that the accounts were not joint accounts with rights of survivorship under New York Banking Law § 675, which provides that if specific words of survivorship are used when a joint account is created, it is prima facie evidence that title is vested in the survivor; the burden is on the party challenging the title of the survivor to prove otherwise.  Here, the petitioner argued that the bank’s Membership and Account Agreement states that “[u]nless otherwise stated on the Account Card or documented through the Credit Union’s online application and authentication process, a joint account includes rights of survivorship.”  As such, according to the petitioner, because neither box was checked on the Account Change Card, he was entitled to the protections under New York Banking Law § 675.

The court denied the petitioner’s motion and granted the executor’s cross-motion as to the applicability of Banking Law § 675.  The Court determined that when the decedent’s wife died, the decedent benefited from the survivorship language in the “Joint Share Account Agreement” and the money became his alone.  The accounts were no longer joint accounts but individual accounts.  The Court further found that nothing in the Joint Share Account Agreement bestows the same rights of survivorship on any future joint owner.  By failing to designate whether the accounts were to be “with” or “without” rights of survivorship when they signed the Account Change Card, the Court found that the petitioner does not benefit from the presumption afforded under Banking Law § 675.  In that vein, the petitioner admitted that he had not received a copy of the Membership and Account Agreement and was not aware of the language therein regarding rights of survivorship, and the Court found that he could not retroactively rely on the same.   The Court also rejected the petitioner’s argument in the alternative that no material question of fact exists as to the issue of whether the decedent intended to convey rights of survivorship when he added the petitioner as a joint owner.  Accordingly, the Court denied the petitioner’s motion for summary judgment, and granted the executor’s cross-motion to the extent it seeks a summary declaration that the accounts do not enjoy the presumption afforded by Banking Law § 675.

For a copy of the decision, please contact Michael O’Donnell at modonnell@riker.com, Michael Crowley at mcrowley@riker.com or Clarissa Gomez at cgomez@riker.com.