Survivorship rights found in undesignated accounts.


Byline: Barry Bridges

There was no error in a trial judge's conclusion that a "mistake" by a bank allowed for the examination of extrinsic evidence to determine whether nondesignated accounts were created with a right of survivorship.

That is according to a 4-1 decision by the Rhode Island Supreme Court, with the majority upholding the lower decision that a right of survivorship was established and that the monies in the accounts should therefore be distributed pursuant to a will's clause on joint property.

The case involved a dispute between the children of Catherine Ignatia Ryan, who, shortly before her death, established two accounts with her daughters.

One account was owned by "Catherine I. Ryan or Lizbeth Larkin" and the other by "Catherine I. Ryan or Lisa A. Ryan." Significantly, both accounts were silent on the issue of survivorship.

After Catherine died, her two other children contended that the accounts were assets of the estate and should be distributed equally among all four siblings under the will's residual clause.

Central to resolving the question was the state Supreme Court's 1998 holding in Robinson v. Delfino, which established a presumption, absent mistake or fraud, that no survivorship rights exist unless a joint account so indicates.

Justice William P. Robinson III wrote for the majority in finding no fault with Superior Court Judge Luis M. Matos' conclusion that the bank made a "mistake" when the accounts were opened by not checking appropriate boxes on a form.

Robinson also endorsed Matos' subsequent analysis of extrinsic evidence to determine Catherine's intent regarding the account, including the deposition testimony of Lizbeth and Lisa, and affirmed the trial judge's ultimate conclusion that Catherine intended a right of survivorship.

Registering a sharp dissent was Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg, who said that Robinson's presumption had not been overborne.

"[A]ny suggestion of mistake in the opening of joint bank accounts that do not contain a right-of-survivorship designation should not serve as an open invitation for the presentation of hearsay testimony in order to perform a postmortem cerebral autopsy, they very type 'of foray into the mind of a deceased person' that Robinson was intended to eliminate," Goldberg wrote.

The 25-page decision is Larkin v. Arthurs, et al., Lawyers Weekly No. 60-071-19. The full text of the ruling can be found here.

Appellate attorneys for Larkin were Kevin M. Daley of Warwick and...

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