The dangers of joint accounts (3 of 3): who's the owner?

April 25, 2013, by


man in wheelchair with girl.jpgSondra was helping Uncle Rudolph with his finances, so he put quite a bit of his money in an account in both of their names. He made them joint tenants of the account with right of survivorship, meaning that if one of them died, the other would get all the money. The evidence indicated this was what he intended. Rudolph got cancer and started to fail. Sondra was aware that there were other helpers and it seemed there was a risk one of them would write checks for Rudolph or otherwise access his money. So Sondra took $113,900 out of the joint account to protect it.

Then Rudolph died and other niece Edwina became his executor. Edwina sued Sondra for taking Rudolph's money without authorization.

The trial court ruled for Sondra, determining that Rudolph made a gift to Sondra when he established the joint account. So she was justified in withdrawing funds while he was still living. Any remaining balance in the account passed to her upon his death under Revised Code of Washington 30.22.100(3): "Funds belonging to a deceased depositor which remain on deposit in a joint account with right of survivorship belong to the surviving depositors unless there is clear and convincing evidence of a contrary intent at the time the account was created."


On appeal In re Estate of Krappes, the estate won one battle but lost the war. It succeeded in defeating the argument that the creation of the JTWROS account was a gift to Sondra. It pointed rightly to RCW 30.22.090(2) to support its finding that the funds withdrawn really belonged to Rudolph despite Sondra's name on them: "Funds on deposit in a joint account without right of survivorship and in a joint account with right of survivorship belong to the depositors in proportion to the net funds owned by each depositor on deposit in the account, unless the contract of deposit provides otherwise or there is clear and convincing evidence of a contrary intent at the time the account was created." The statute is a bit circular, but means the funds belong to the person who contributed them. This is the way the IRS views these situations also, for estate tax purposes.

Because the money wasn't hers, Sondra was wrong to take any of it out while her uncle was living. So the estate was entitled to its return. But wait, by a further (nonstautory) concept of a constructive trust, Sondra won anyway. That is, she was obliged to restore the taken funds to the estate, but because Rudolph clearly intended that she end up with them, what was restored to the estate was deemed held for her benefit, and so went right back to her. Kind of a contorted way of getting there, but probably the right result. If Sondra had never withdrawn the money, she would have gotten it by survivorship anyway.