August 10, 2010
IN RE: ESTATE OF CHARLES F. CELLA,
APPEAL OF: AUDREY C. LOCKE,
BEFORE: GANTMAN, PANELLA, AND ALLEN, JJ. ***Petition for Reargument Filed August 23, 2010*** OPINION BY GANTMAN, J.:
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gantman, J
Appellant, Audrey C. Locke, appeals from the order entered in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, Orphans' court, which directed the funds in three (3) joint bank accounts to be included in the estate of Charles F. Cella ("Decedent") and distributed in accordance with his last will and testament. Appellant asks us to determine whether she is the owner of the subject accounts by means of her statutory right of survivorship pursuant to the Multiple Party Account Act at 20 Pa.C.S.A. §§ 6301-6306 ("MPAA"). For the following reasons, we hold the record does not support the court's decision to override the MPAA, where Appellee, Reba Cella-Renk, failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that Decedent had an intent contrary to Appellant's right of survivorship when he created the joint accounts. Accordingly, we reverse and remand this case to the Orphans' court for treatment of the accounts at issue consistent with this opinion.
The relevant facts and procedural history of this case are as follows. Between 1997 and 2003, Decedent opened these joint bank accounts: Parkvale Savings Bank account No. *****426 ("PK-426") (opened February 28, 1997); National City Bank of Pennsylvania account No. ******643 ("NC- 643") (opened October 10, 2002); and National City Bank of Pennsylvania account No. ******642 ("NC-642") (opened May 22, 2003). Upon opening the accounts, both Decedent and Appellant1 signed account cards expressly designating each of the accounts as joint with the right of survivorship ("JWROS"). Stipulations in this case include that Decedent solely funded the accounts, the accounts were opened as joint accounts with Appellant, and Decedent did not intend an inter vivos gift of the money in the accounts to Appellant. On January 7, 2005, Decedent executed his last will and testament and a durable power of attorney. Under the express terms and conditions of his will, Decedent devised all of his real and personal property to his three (3) grandchildren, and named Appellee2 as executrix. The will did not reference the bank accounts. Decedent's durable power of attorney named Appellant as attorney-in-fact. Between January 7, 2005 and March 23, 2005, Appellant withdrew approximately $22,000.00 from PK-426, $16,688.83 from NC-642, and $7,000.00 from NC-643. Decedent died in 1 Appellant was Decedent's sister. 2 Appellee was Decedent's daughter. the afternoon of March 23, 2005. On April 14, 2005, the Register of Wills issued letters testamentary. On July 27, 2007, Appellee filed a petition for citation, requesting Appellant to produce an accounting of the funds from the three bank accounts at issue. On September 14, 2007, the court ordered Appellant to show cause why she should not provide a full and final accounting of any and all accounts and assets titled in Decedent's name that existed at the time of Decedent's death and/or one year prior to his death. On March 12, 2008, the Orphans' court held a hearing on the petition. On June 19, 2008, the court ordered the funds in the three accounts to pass to Decedent's estate to be distributed in accordance with Decedent's will. The court found Decedent had created the accounts solely as a matter of convenience; consequently, Appellant was not the owner of the accounts upon Decedent's death and had no right of survivorship in the bank accounts as against Decedent's estate. On July 8, 2008, Appellant timely filed exceptions, which the court denied on August 6, 2008. Appellant timely filed a notice of appeal on September 3, 2008. On September 10, 2008, the court ordered Appellant to file a concise statement of matters complained of on appeal pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b), which Appellant timely filed on September 24, 2008. By order entered December 11, 2008, the court expressly deemed as final its August 6, 2008 order. Appellant raises the following issues for our review:
DID THE ORPHANS' COURT ERR IN INTERPRETING AND APPLYING THE MPAA SURVIVORSHIP PROVISION [AND] RULING THAT THE ACCOUNTS FOUND TO HAVE BEEN OPENED FOR [DECEDENT'S] CONVENIENCE DID NOT THEREFORE HAVE ANY SURVIVORSHIP INTEREST? DID THE COURT ERR IN ARBITRARILY AND CAPRICIOUS[LY] DISREGARDING SUBSTANTIAL HISTORICAL DOCUMENTARY EVIDENCE OF [DECEDENT'S] INTENT UNDER THE MPAA'S SURVIVORSHIP PROVISION IN REACHING [THE] FACTUAL [CONCLUSION] THAT [DECEDENT] DID NOT INTEND APPELLANT'TO HAVE SURVIVORSHIP INTERESTS IN THE DISPUTED ACCOUNTS? DID THE COURT ERR IN ARBITRARILY AND CAPRICIOUSLY RELYING ON CONFUSED AND CONTRADICTORY TESTIMONIAL EVIDENCE OF [DECEDENT'S] INTENT UNDER THE MPAA SURVIVORSHIP PROVISION IN REACHING [THE] FACTUAL [CONCLUSION] THAT [DECEDENT] DID NOT INTEND APPELLANT'TO HAVE SURVIVORSHIP INTERESTS IN THE DISPUTED ACCOUNTS? (Appellant's Brief at 2-3). As a prefatory matter, we observe: "The appealability of an order directly implicates the jurisdiction of the court asked to review the order." Estate of Considine v. Wachovia Bank, 966 A.2d 1148, 1151 (Pa.Super. 2009). "[T]his Court has the power to inquire at any time, sua sponte, whether an order is appealable." Id.; Stanton v. Lackawanna Energy, Ltd., 915 A.2d 668, 673 (Pa.Super. 2007). Pennsylvania law makes clear: [A]n appeal may be taken from: (1) a final order or an order certified as a final order (Pa.R.A.P. 341); (2) an interlocutory order as of right (Pa.R.A.P. 311); (3) an interlocutory order by permission (Pa.R.A.P. 312, 1311, 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 702(b)); or (4) a collateral order (Pa.R.A.P. 313). Stahl v. Redcay, 897 A.2d 478, 485 (Pa.Super. 2006), appeal denied, 591
Pa704, 918 A.2d 747 (2007)(quoting Pace v. Thomas Jefferson University Hosp., 717 A.2d 539, 540 (Pa.Super. 1998) (internal citations omitted)). Pennsylvania Rule of Appellate Procedure 341 defines "final orders" and states: Rule 341. Final Orders; Generally (a) General rule. Except as prescribed in subdivisions (d), and (e) of this rule, an appeal may be taken as of right from any final order of an administrative agency or lower court. (b) Definition of final order. A final order is any order that: (1)disposes of all claims and of all parties; or (2) is expressly defined as a final order by statute; or (3) is entered as a final order pursuant to subdivision (c) of this rule. (c) Determination of finality. When more than one claim for relief is presented in an action, whether as a claim, counterclaim, cross-claim, or third-party claim'the trial court'may enter a final order as to one or more but fewer than all of the claims'only upon an express determination that an immediate appeal would facilitate resolution of the entire case. Such an order becomes appealable when entered. In the absence of such a determination and entry of a final order, any order'that adjudicates fewer than all the claims'shall not constitute a final order. ' Pa.R.A.P. 341(a)-(c). Under Rule 341, a final order can be one that disposes of all the parties and all the claims, is expressly defined as a final order by statute, or is entered as a final order pursuant to the trial court's determination under Rule 341(c). Pa.R.A.P. 341(b)(1)-(3); In re N.B., 817 A.2d 530, 533 (Pa.Super. 2003).
Pennsylvania Rule of Appellate Procedure 342 provides:
Rule 342. Orphans' Court Orders Appealable.
Orders Determining Realty, Personalty and Status of
Individuals or Entities. Orders Making Distribution
An order of the Orphans' Court Division making a
distribution, or determining an interest in realty or
personalty or the status of individuals or entities, shall
be immediately appealable:
(1) upon a determination of finality by the Orphans'
Court Division, or
(2) as otherwise provided by Chapter 3 of these rules.
Pa.R.A.P. 342 (emphasis added). In 2005, the legislature amended Rule
342 to clarify the procedure set forth in subsection (1) is not the exclusive
method of appealing interlocutory orders in estate cases. Pa.R.A.P. 342,
Note. A party may also take an appeal from an interlocutory order under
subsection (2). Pa.R.A.P. 342(2).3
The instant case involves an appeal from the Orphans' court order
declaring the three joint bank accounts as part of Decedent's estate, to be
distributed according to his will. By order entered June 19, 2008, the court
directed Appellant to turn over the accounts to Decedent's estate. Appellant
filed exceptions to the order, which the court denied on August 6, 2008. By
3 Rule 342 as amended supersedes In re Estate v. Sorber, 803 A.2d 767
(Pa.Super. 2002) (quashing appeal because 2001 version of Rule 342
precluded interlocutory appeals in estate cases if Orphans' court did not
make determination of finality).
order entered December 11, 2008, the court expressly deemed as final its
August 6, 2008 order. See Pa.R.A.P. 341(b)(1); 342(1). Thus, we have no
jurisdictional impediments and will review the merits of Appellant's claims.
When reviewing an order from the Orphans' court:
[O]ur standard is narrow: we will not reverse unless there
is a clear error of law or an abuse of discretion. Our scope
of review is also limited: we determine only whether the
court's findings are based on competent and credible
evidence of record.
In re Estate of Westin, 874 A.2d 139, 142 (Pa.Super. 2005) (internal
citations omitted). "An abuse of discretion is not merely an error of
judgment; if, in reaching a conclusion, the court overrides or misapplies the
law, or the judgment exercised is shown by the record to be'manifestly
unreasonable or the product of partiality, prejudice, bias or ill will, discretion
has been abused." Silver v. Pinskey, 981 A.2d 284, 291 (Pa.Super. 2009)
(en banc) (quoting Mencer v. Ruch, 928 A.2d 294, 297 (Pa.Super. 2007)).
For purposes of disposition, we combine Appellant's issues. Appellant
argues she is the true owner of the joint accounts because each of the
accounts at issue was expressly designated JWROS. In support of her
position, Appellant at first directs our attention to evidence of Decedent's
banking and financial planning history that shows Decedent knew the legal
effect of creating a JWROS account. Appellant maintains Decedent had, in
the past, given her and Appellee limited "signatory authority" on other
accounts. Appellant asserts this evidence indicates Decedent's intent was to
create these particular accounts as JWROS, which defeats Appellee's position
that Decedent opened the accounts solely for his convenient use. Appellant
further observes there was no evidence of record that Decedent ever
actually used the accounts as a "convenience." Instead, Appellant asserts
the evidence unequivocally demonstrates Decedent intended the character
of the accounts as beneficiary. Appellant insists Appellee failed to rebut by
clear and convincing evidence the MPAA presumption of
survivorship/ownership. Appellant concludes she became the owner of the
joint accounts upon Decedent's death, and the funds in the joint accounts
passed to her outside the estate pursuant to her right of survivorship; and
this Court must reverse the decision of the Orphans' court. For the following
reasons, we agree.
In Pennsylvania, the ownership of funds held in a multi-party account
is governed by statute. In re Estate of Dembiec, 468 A.2d 1107, 1110
(Pa.Super. 1983). The MPAA defines a multiple-party account as "either a
joint account or a trust account." 20 Pa.C.S.A. § 6301. The MPAA, in turn,
defines a joint account as, "an account payable on request to one or more of
two or more parties whether or not mention is made of any right of
survivorship." Id. Section 6303(a) provides: "A joint account belongs,
during the lifetime of all parties, to the parties in proportion to the net
contributions by each to the sum on deposit, unless there is clear and
convincing evidence of a different intent." 20 Pa.C.S.A. § 6303(a). The
theory behind the statute is that of ownership of the accounts attributable to
the individual's respective deposits and withdrawals; "the right of
survivorship which attaches unless negated by the form of the account
really is a right to the values theretofore owned by another which the
survivor receives for the first time at the death of the owner. That is to say,
the account operates as a valid disposition at death rather than as a present
joint tenancy." In re Novosielski, ___ Pa. ___, ___, 992 A.2d 89, 105
(2010) (emphasis in original).
One who knowledgeably creates a joint account with
another arguably does so with the present intent to
employ the account's survivorship characteristic in
substitution for a testamentary device. Furthermore,
accounts with right of survivorship provisions are often set
up to allow caretakers to assist senior citizens with the
management of their finances. Their well-planned financial
protection can best be honored by adhering to the
statutory presumption[s]'. Like other testamentary
devices, creation of a joint account, without more,
accomplishes no present transfer of title to property.
If'one person deposits all sums in the joint account, this
arrangement contemplates transfer of title to those funds
to the other person or persons named on the account upon
the death of the depositor. Moreover, the creator of a
joint account, like the maker of a will and unlike the giver
of a gift, may change his or her mind prior to death.
Id. at ___, 992 A.2d at 102 (quoting Deutsch, Larrimore & Farnish, P.C.
v. Johnson, 577 Pa. 637, 648, 848 A.2d 137, 143-44 (2004)).
Section 6304 of the MPAA addresses the right of survivorship in a joint
account, and provides in pertinent part:
§ 6304. Right of Survivorship
(a) Joint Account."Any sum remaining on deposit
at the death of a party to a joint account belongs to the
surviving party or parties as against the estate of the
decedent unless there is clear and convincing
evidence of a different intent at the time the account
is created. '
(d) Change by will prohibited."A right of
survivorship arising from the express terms of an account
or under this section, or a beneficiary designation in a trust
account cannot be changed by will.
20 Pa.C.S.A. § 6304 (emphasis added).
The underlying assumption is that most persons who use
joint accounts want the survivor or survivors to have all
balances remaining at death. As to the ownership of funds
held in a joint account, the statute favors the surviving
party over the estate of the decedent. By [enacting]
20 Pa.C.S.A. § 6304, the legislature has created a
statutory presumption that survivorship rights are intended
when a joint account is created. This presumption can be
overcome only by clear and convincing evidence of
contrary intent. The burden of establishing a contrary
intent is on the party who opposes the presumption
In re Estate of Meyers, 642 A.2d 525, 528 (Pa.Super. 1994) (internal
citations omitted) (emphasis added). The clear and convincing evidence
standard is the highest standard of proof for civil claims. Manning v.
WPXI, Inc., 886 A.2d 1137, 1144 (Pa.Super. 2005), appeal denied, 589 Pa.
731, 909 A.2d 305 (2006). "This standard requires evidence so clear, direct,
weighty, and convincing as to enable the trier of fact to come to a clear
conviction, without hesitancy of the truth of the precise facts in issue." Id.
Recently, the Supreme Court clarified certain concepts concerning the
nature of joint accounts and the statutory presumption of survivorship
generally, as well as the necessary quantum of proof to overcome that
presumption and what effect if any the creation of a will has on that
presumption. In re Novosielski, supra. First, the Court reiterated that
joint accounts with rights of survivorship are typically created as
"convenience" accounts; as such, a legitimately created joint account carries
the statutory presumption of survivorship unless negated by the form of the
account. Id. at ___, 992 A.2d at 105. The purpose of the presumption is to
provide financial institutions with "the certainty and regularity required for
the general course of human commerce" and to avoid "the protracted
resolution of family disputes," as illustrated by the present conflict. Id. at
___, 992 A.2d at 106-07. Thus, the opponent of the survivorship right has
the burden to produce evidence "so clear, direct, weighty, and convincing
that the fact finder could without hesitation, come to a clear conviction that
Decedent, in fact, had not intended" a right of survivorship regardless of
how the accounts were created. Id. at ___, 992 A.2d at 107. The
proponent of the survivorship right, on the other hand, is not required to
come forward with additional evidence of the decedent's intent at the time
the account was created. Id. at ___, 992 A.2d at 106.
"Absent a finding based on clear and convincing evidence that the
[accounts were] fraudulently created or accomplished through a breach of
trust" the court must apply the MPAA to resolve the dispute. Id. at ___,
992 A.2d at 107. "[E]xcept when the instrument explicitly provides to the
contrary or in the unusual case of heightened degree of evidence, individuals
and institutions may safely rely upon the presumed right of survivorship of
MPAA joint accounts." Id. at ___, 992 A.2d at 102.
Moreover, the creation of a will does not defeat the survivorship right
created by joint accounts merely because the will would distribute a
decedent's property in a conflicting manner. Id. at ___, 992 A.2d at 101.
"The legislature did not intend that the MPAA be read to conform to the
provisions in the PEF [Probate, Estate, and Fiduciaries] Code governing
wills." Id. at ___, 992 A.2d at 102.
Instantly, the Orphans' court decided Appellee had rebutted the
statutory presumption of survivorship as follows:
* * *
9. It appears to this [c]ourt that [Decedent] treated
the monies in the three [(3)] disputed accounts as his own
during his lifetime.
10. It appears to this [c]ourt that [Appellant] was
simply the person who signed checks from the three [(3)]
11. It appears to this [c]ourt that [Appellant]
exercised no dominion or control over the funds which
were deposited exclusively by [Decedent] prior to his
12. This [c]ourt is convinced that the three [(3)]
disputed accounts were created jointly as a matter of
convenience to [Decedent].
13.This [c]ourt finds that [Decedent] did not impart
the right of survivorship to [Appellant].
14.This [c]ourt finds that [Appellee] has produced
sufficient evidence to rebut the statutory presumption that
the funds remaining in the three [(3)] disputed accounts,
at the time of the death of [Decedent,] belonged to
[Appellant] by means of survivorship pursuant to 20
Pa.C.S.A. § 6304(a).
* * *
(Orphans' Court Order, filed June 19, 2008, at 2). After a thorough review
of the record and the relevant law, we respectfully disagree that these
findings were sufficient to support the court's decision.
At the March 12, 2008 hearing, the parties stipulated Decedent had
opened the joint accounts expressly as JWROS accounts with Appellant.
(See N.T. Hearing, 3/12/08, at 5.) Decedent and Appellant signed account
cards each time, expressly designating the respective account as JWROS.
See 20 Pa.C.S.A. § 6301. By the manner in which Decedent titled the joint
accounts as JWROS, he created a right of survivorship in Appellant.
Pursuant to the MPAA survivorship presumption, and in the absence of any
evidence of fraud or undue influence involved in the titling of the accounts,
the accounts belonged to Appellant when Decedent died. See 20 Pa.C.S.A.
§ 6304(a); In re Novosielski, supra.
Consequently, Appellee had to present clear and convincing evidence
to rebut the survivorship presumption and prove Decedent, in fact, had not
intended a right of survivorship regardless of how the accounts were
created. See id. Although Decedent solely funded the disputed accounts,
treated the monies in those accounts as his own during his lifetime, and
Appellant did not exercise dominion or control over those accounts,
Decedent's acts were wholly consistent with the statutory presumption that
funds in a joint account belong to the depositor during his lifetime. See 20
Pa.C.S.A. § 6303(a); In re Novosielski, supra; Deutsch, Larrimore &
Farnish, P.C., supra. There was absolutely no evidence that Decedent
changed his mind regarding the nature of the joint accounts at any time
before he died or tried to liquidate the accounts and his efforts were
Moreover, joint accounts are typically created as "convenience
accounts"; such arrangements are also consistent with the statutory
presumption of survivorship. See In re Novosielski, supra; Deutsch,
Larrimore & Farnish, P.C., supra. Regardless of whether the subject
accounts were "convenience" accounts, legitimately created joint accounts
still carry the statutory presumption of survivorship, unless negated by the
form of the account.
As the opponent of the survivorship right, Appellee had the burden to
produce evidence so clear, direct, weighty, and convincing that the fact
finder could without hesitation, come to a clear conviction that Decedent, in
fact, had not intended a right of survivorship in Appellant, regardless of how
the accounts were created. See In re Novosielski, supra. Without a
finding based on clear and convincing evidence that the joint accounts were
fraudulently created/maintained or titled through a breach of trust, the
Orphans' court should have applied the MPAA to resolve this dispute and
found in favor of Appellant. See id.
Likewise, the fact that Decedent drafted his will naming his
grandchildren as beneficiaries of his estate, after he had opened the joint
accounts, is not clear and convincing evidence Decedent also intended the
funds in the joint accounts to pass as part of his probate estate. See 20
Pa.C.S.A. § 6304(d); In re Novosielski, supra. At the hearing, Appellee
and Decedent's family members admitted Decedent had not discussed with
any of them his specific intentions regarding the joint accounts. Rather,
Appellee and Decedent's family members articulated only a general
knowledge that Decedent wanted to benefit his grandchildren upon his
death. While the testimony adduced at the hearing indicated generally
Decedent's objective to provide for his grandchildren, Appellee failed to
produce testimony/evidence regarding the manner or the specific property
he wished to leave his grandchildren upon his death.4 Appellee's description
of Decedent's general goal is not so clear, direct, weighty, and convincing to
prove Decedent wanted the joint accounts to pass through his estate.
4 In addition to designating his grandchildren as the residuary beneficiaries
under his will, Decedent also named his grandchildren as the sole
beneficiaries of his IRA accounts, which indicates Decedent knew what he
had and what he wished to leave to his grandchildren.
Rather, the testimony adduced at the hearing shows just a general sense or "common knowledge" among family members of Decedent's basic aim to benefit his grandchildren. (See N.T., 3/12/08, at 20, 89-90, 101-02, 115, 145.) Importantly, Appellee and various other family members conceded that Decedent had not discussed his banking, financial plans, and/or testamentary devises with them before he died.5 (See id. at 49-50, 89-90, 101, 104, 113, 131.) Therefore, Appellee's evidence did not meet the heightened degree necessary to rebut the statutory presumption of Appellant's survivorship rights to the joint accounts, which on their face reflected Decedent's intent that Appellant should own the accounts upon Decedent's death. See In re Novosielski, supra. Thus, we hold the Orphans' court erred in its interpretation of the MPAA and improperly applied its provisions, given the lack of clear and convincing record evidence of an intent contrary to Appellant's statutory right of survivorship. Accordingly, we reverse and remand this case to the Orphans' court for treatment of the accounts at issue consistent with this opinion. Order reversed; case remanded with instructions. Jurisdiction is relinquished. 5 Appellee did produce evidence of Decedent's specific intent regarding his IRA accounts; Appellee testified: "[Decedent] had given me a sealed envelope and said, 'If anything happens to me, this is for the girls.'" (See id. at 147.)
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