There is often confusion regarding what property falls within an estate, or trust, and what property falls outside of either. For example, commonly bank accounts, IRA’s, etc., are titled in such a way that upon one person’s death, the remaining monies are left to the other person or person(s) identified on the account paperwork such that this property passes outside the estate or trust. It can often be a difficult task to demonstrate that this money should be divided in a different manner.
However, the Arkansas Court of Appeals recently affirmed a trial court’s ruling that this was what was supposed to occur, in the case of Richardson v. Brown, 2012 Ark. App. 535 (September 26, 2012) stemming from Faulkner County Circuit Court. This was actually a case that I handled on behalf of a client, and the Judge ruled in his favor. The ruling was left wholly intact by the appellate court.
Without going into too much detail, the parties' mother passed away leaving three children as her heirs. Certain property passed to the children pursuant to a will, but the mother had other property (a car, bank accounts, IRA, etc.) that were titled in various ways as between her and her individual children. Our client argued that despite the titling on the various property, the three children had in fact an oral agreement, as demonstrated by the later actions and conduct of the children, to split all of the properties evenly. He had received the “short end of the stick” and, basically, believed that his sisters had intentionally deprived him of his equal one-third share.
In a hard fought battle, our client ultimately prevailed at trial and proved that, notwithstanding the titling on the various properties, there was an express agreement among the siblings to equally divide the various accounts. The trial court imposed a judgment and a substantial attorneys’ fee award, both of which were affirmed by the Court of Appeals.
In doing so, among other things the Court ruled that ordinarily ownership of a joint bank account with a right of survivorship is conclusive proof of the parties’ intent for the property to pass to the survivor. However, this general rule does not prevent the survivor from making a different disposition by agreement, and in this case the trial court determined that such an agreement had in fact been made among the siblings. This is a difficult argument to make, because courts presume that the titling on an account is strong evidence of how that property is to be distributed. But, if the facts and evidence warrant it, this case demonstrates that a court will sometimes hold that an agreement to divide the property otherwise will prevail over the titling of an account.
Matt House can be contacted by telephone at 501-372-6555, by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, by facsimile at 501-372-6333, or by regular mail at James, House & Downing, P.A., Post Office Box 3585, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203.