One of the fundamental aspects of estate planning and settling an estate is determining the nature of a person’s assets. When planning an estate a New York City Estate Attorney typically examines the ownership of various types of assets. For example, a bank account may be owned in a variety of ways. The account may be held in the name of a person alone or it may be in the name of the person with a designated beneficiary to receive the account funds on the death of the account holder. Additionally, the account may be held in the joint names of the person along with another person who has rights of survivorship. Thus, the account would be paid automatically to the surviving joint owner.
The issues that arise in connection with joint assets tend to fill the Surrogate’s Court calendars. The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has discussed in many posts that a Last Will only controls assets that are in a person’s name alone. Joint assets and other items such as retirement funds that have named beneficiaries are distributed outside of the Will by operation of law.Very often decedents are found to have created joint bank accounts or other joint holdings for a matter of convenience without understanding or considering the post-death consequences of such property designations Estate Litigation is very common because the surviving joint owners do not want to share the assets with other family members even though the decedent may not have intended for the surviving joint owner to receive the full value of the jointly owned item.
I have represented many individuals in matters where there were disputes regarding the ownership of a joint asset after a decedent’s death. These Court battles often involve claims of overreaching and undue influence. Unfortunately, in many instances the reality is that the decedent was simply not careful about the consequences resulting from these accounts.
The recent case of Fischer v. Graham, decided by Federal District Court Judge Nelson Roman on June 3, 2016, provides a typical example of the problems created by joint accounts. In Fischer, the parents of three children had opened a bank account in their joint names. Shortly thereafter, the parents added just one of their children to the account as a third joint owner so that such child could help the parents with paying expenses. After the parents died, the joint account automatically became the property of the one surviving child named on the account.
The joint owner child then refused to distribute a share of the account to the other two children despite the assertion that the parents had directed the joint owner child to do so.
The two children who received no interest in the account commenced a lawsuit to obtain their claimed one-third share of the account. After reviewing the various grounds of the complaint, the Court dismissed the lawsuit. The Court essentially found that the surviving joint owner child became the owner of the account upon the death of the parents and did not have any legal duty or obligation to pay a share to the other two siblings.
The Fischer case shows that individuals must be very careful in the way they own and title their assets. Estate Planners are familiar with the manner in which assets will be distributed upon a person’s death. A full inventory of an individuals assets and the title to these items are essential when preparing a Last Will, Living Trust and other planning papers.
If you have any questions regarding an issue concerning a joint asset, estate planning or Estate Administration, call me now for a free review. I represent clients throughout the New York City and County areas.
New York Probate Attorney Jules M. Haas has helped many clients over the past 30 years resolve issues relating to estate planning, estate accountings and estate settlement in Manhattan and Queens and throughout New York. If you or someone you know has any questions regarding these matters, please contact me at (212) 355-2575 for an initial consultation.
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