The distribution of assets in a decedent’s estate may sometimes lead to disputes among beneficiaries. In a February 15, 2017 opinion, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee decided a controversy regarding the disposition of several certificates of deposit that were held in joint tenancy, with right of survivorship, by the decedent and her daughter. The other beneficiaries of the decedent’s estate argued that the certificates of deposit were probate assets. The trial court denied the beneficiaries’ objection and closed the estate, prompting an appeal to the higher court.
The decedent died in 2008, leaving a valid will that devised her estate in equal shares to her children or their survivors. Among her estate were three certificates of deposit titled in the names of the decedent or her daughter, with boxes checked on the signature card to indicate that they were held in joint tenancy with right of survivorship. The decedent had originally opened and funded the original certificates of deposit decades before without her daughter’s assistance or knowledge. During the administration of the decedent’s estate, the other beneficiaries contended that the CDs should be included in the residual estate, while the daughter argued they were non-probate assets because they were held in joint tenancy with right of survivorship.
In Tennessee, the decedent’s intent determines the disposition of the CDs at issue. To establish the decedent’s intent, the court may consider the signed bank signature cards expressing the right of survivorship, as well as other extrinsic evidence to demonstrate intent as to the type of ownership. At the trial, the daughter testified that she became aware of the CDs in the 1980s when she began to assist the decedent with her business affairs. The daughter also stated that she renewed the CDs as joint tenants with right of survivorship while the decedent was alive, since it was the decedent’s wish to have them remain in joint tenancy.
On appeal, the other beneficiaries argued that the daughter’s testimony should have been excluded under Tennessee’s dead man statute, which precludes a survivor’s testimony concerning his or her conversations or transactions with a decedent. The appeals court agreed that some of the daughter’s statements regarding her conversations with the decedent should have been excluded, but it found that other material evidence, such as the bank signature card and the decedent’s knowledge that the CDs had been renewed in joint tenancy, supported the trial court’s ruling. Accordingly, and in the absence of any countervailing evidence, the appeals court concluded that the trial court correctly held that the CDs passed to the daughter as the surviving joint tenant.
A skilled trusts and estates attorney can represent your interests in probate proceedings and advise you of your legal options. The Nashville firm of Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard provides experienced estate planning and probate administration services in addition to handling family law and injury cases. To learn more, schedule an appointment with one of our skilled attorneys by calling (615) 800-7096 or contacting us online.