New York’s First Department Appellate Division recently affirmed a lower court decision and held that a judgment creditor can recover property from a safe deposit box on which the debtor and his wife are joint tenants, despite the claim that the box’s property was solely owned by the wife. See New York Cmty. Bank v. Bank of Am., N.A., 169 A.D.3d 35 (1st Dept. 2019). In 2012, New York Community Bank (“NYCB”) obtained a judgment against a debtor. In 2014, the debtor and his wife rented a safe deposit box at another bank. As part of the rental process, they agreed to the bank’s safe deposit bank rules, which included a statement that “access to a Box rented in the names of two or more persons, . . . shall be under the control of each of them . . . as fully as though the Box was rented in his or her name alone; and each may have access to the Box and the right to surrender the Box.” NYCB later brought a special proceeding to turn over the contents of the box. The wife objected, claiming that she was the sole owner of the box’s contents and that the debtor was only named a co-renter as a matter of convenience. The Supreme Court granted NYCB’s petition and ordered that the other bank turn over the contents of the box.
On appeal, the First Department affirmed the Supreme Court’s decision. The Court held that the general rule regarding joint bank accounts applies to safe deposit boxes: “[w]hen two or more persons open a bank account, making a deposit of cash, securities, or other property, a presumption of joint tenancy with right of survivorship arises.” Thus, the contents of the account (or box) are subject to a levy from a judgment creditor of one of the joint tenants. In this case, the debtor and his wife submitted only an affirmation by their attorney that the contents of the box were solely owned by the wife. The Court found this affirmation was insufficient to overcome the presumption of joint tenancy because the attorney has no personal knowledge of this claim. Therefore, NYCB established its right to levy on all the contents of the box.