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ELEANOR MORGAN v. FIRST PENNSYLVANIA BANK (05/11/88)

filed: May 11, 1988.

ELEANOR MORGAN, GUARDIAN FOR ESTHER WEAND, AN INCOMPETENT, APPELLANTS,
v.
FIRST PENNSYLVANIA BANK, APPELLEE



Appeal From Judgment, Court of Common Pleas Civil Division, Montgomery County No. 85-07505

COUNSEL

John P. Yatsko, Norristown, for appellants.

David R. DeStefano, Norristown, for appellee.

Cavanaugh, Beck and Hester, JJ. Hester, J., files a dissenting opinion.

Author: Cavanaugh

[ 373 Pa. Super. Page 410]

The issues in this case are whether the court below erred (1) in permitting the appellee, First Pennsylvania Bank, to admit signature cards in evidence and (2) in permitting the bank to introduce evidence which explained the terms of the bank's written regulations.

In 1966, Esther Weand opened a passbook savings account with the First Pennsylvania Bank. In 1971 she had the account changed to a joint account with her sister, Julia Bruce. Both Esther and Julia signed the signature card which specifically stated that the account was a joint account.*fn1 The agreement with the bank provided that the account was subject to withdrawal by either party. On November 30, 1983, Mrs. Bruce wrote to the bank and requested that the joint account be closed and that all the funds in the account be sent to her. Gwendolyn Webster, who was the bank manager at the bank involved in this transaction, testified that she knew Mrs. Bruce's signature from prior transactions and verified the signature on the letter comparing it with the signature on the signature card kept at the bank. A treasurer's check in the amount of $5,180.22 was sent by the bank to Mrs. Bruce on December 14, 1983 and the account was closed.

[ 373 Pa. Super. Page 411]

On December 9, 1983, a few days before the funds were paid to Mrs. Bruce, Mrs. Weand was adjudicated incompetent and a guardian of her estate appointed. The appellant in this case is the guardian of Mrs. Weand's estate.

The appellant commenced an action in the court below alleging that the appellee, First Pennsylvania Bank, was negligent and also breached its contract. The claims were partially based on the allegation that the bank transferred the funds in violation of its regulations as set forth on the passbook savings account. The case was initially heard before a panel of arbitrators who found for the appellee bank. An appeal was taken to the Court of Common Pleas. Following a two day trial without a jury, the court below, by Yohn, J., found for the bank. The plaintiff, who was the guardian of Mrs. Weand's estate, filed post-trial motions which were denied and an appeal was filed with this court.

In order to put the issues in focus, we must examine the legal consequences of what Esther Weand did in 1971. In that year she established a joint bank account with her sister, Julia Bruce. Both sisters signed the signature card and either could withdraw the funds from the account. The survivor was to receive the balance in the account. As pointed out in Watson Estate, 290 Pa. Super. 384, 434 A.2d 805 (1981) an executed signature card establishes prima facie an inter vivos gift from the party funding the account to the other joint tenant. See also Krempasky Estate, 348 Pa. Super. 128, 501 A.2d 681 (1985); Dzierski Estate, 449 Pa. 285, 296 A.2d 716 (1972). The presumption of a valid inter vivos gift, in the circumstances of establishing a joint account, may be rebutted only by clear, precise and convincing evidence. Banko v. Malanecki, 499 Pa. 92, 451 A.2d 1008 (1982).

In the instant case, it appears that Esther Weand had contributed the whole amount in the savings account. However, when she made the account into a joint account, her sister, Julia Bruce, had equal rights to the account. "Even when one contributes the entire sum to a joint bank account, the rights of each of the tenants to the joint fund

[ 373 Pa. Super. Page 412]

    are the same, the one who made the contribution has by that act made an immediate gift to the other." Cochrane Estate, 342 Pa. 108, 111, 20 A.2d 305, 307 (1941). See also Glessner v. Security-Peoples Trust Co., 166 Pa. Super. 566, 72 A.2d 817 (1950).*fn2

The facts before us are analogous to those in Beniger Estate, 449 Pa. 373, 296 A.2d 773 (1972). In that case, a joint tenant who had the right to withdraw funds, withdrew all of the funds from a savings account after a petition had been filed to have the other joint tenant declared incompetent. Three weeks after the joint account was closed, the alleged incompetent was declared incompetent and he died eight days later. The Supreme Court held that the funds withdrawn belonged to the joint tenant who withdrew them. The court stated at 449 Pa. 377, 296 A.2d 776, that the joint tenant's incapacities, " at the time the account was closed by appellee are irrelevant since the gift was presumptively made when the card was signed and not, as appellant contends, when the money was withdrawn." (Emphasis added).

Bramble Estate, 4 Pa.Fid.2d 243 (Chester County 1984) is also instructive. The son of an incompetent was ordered to repay the guardian of the incompetent's estate $17,000.00

[ 373 Pa. Super. Page 413]

    which the son withdrew from the bank account which was in the joint names of the father and son. At the time the father established the joint account, he had begun to slip mentally and there was evidence that the joint account was a mere "convenience" account for the father's money so that the father would not have to go back and forth to the bank to transact business. Even though the court held that there was no gift, it stated at 4 Pa.Fid.2d 244: ". . . as between the bank and the joint owners of the account, either joint owner is free to withdraw the money from the account. . ." (Emphasis added).

The evidence prima facie established an inter vivos gift by Mrs. Weand to her sister in 1971 when the account was made into a joint account. There was no evidence whatsoever introduced to rebut the presumption of a valid inter vivos gift and Mrs. Weand's mental condition at the time of the withdrawal was irrelevant. See Beninger Estate, supra. However, we need not decide that a valid inter vivos gift was made, but only reach the issue that as between the appellee bank and Mrs. Weand, the bank acted properly in paying the funds to her sister, Mrs. Bruce.

We find no error in admitting the signature cards into evidence. To begin with, the appellant agrees that Mrs. Weand added her sister as a joint owner in 1971. It is also agreed that Mrs. Bruce sent a letter to the appellee bank on December 13, 1983 requesting withdrawal of all of the funds in the account. Finally, no evidence was introduced to attack the validity of Mrs. Bruce's signature on the signature card or withdrawal letter, nor is it contended that anyone other than Mrs. Bruce received the proceeds in the account.

A bank manager at the branch where the account was handled testified that the signature on the letter withdrawing the funds was Mrs. Bruce's signature. Her testimony was as follows:

A. And have you ever seen that -- what is that signature?

A. It is the signature of Julia ...


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