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In re Estate of Walker

January 12, 2006


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (ADM-1834-99) (Hon. Cheryl M. Long, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reid, Associate Judge

Argued May 14, 2002

Before SCHWELB and REID, Associate Judges, and WAGNER, Senior Judge.*fn1 Opinion for the court by Associate Judge REID.

Opinion concurring in part, dissenting in part, and concurring in part in the remand by Associate Judge SCHWELB at p. 19.

This case concerns the proper distribution of the proceeds of a savings account held jointly in the names of the decedent, Frances Walker ("Ms. Walker"), who died intestate, and appellant Stanley Stefan ("Mr. Stefan"), who is unrelated to Ms. Walker. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Eulse Cee Young, Jr. (Mr. Young"), the decedent's great nephew and personal representative of Ms. Walker's estate, who claimed the proceeds of the account as an asset of the estate. We reverse the trial court's ruling, and hold that on the facts of this case, summary judgment was not appropriate because the trier of fact must resolve genuine issues of material fact concerning the joint savings account. Therefore, we remand this case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


The record before us, which includes Mr. Stefan's verified complaint, depositions of Mr. Stefan and Mr. Young, and the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment with supporting documents, shows that on or about July 16, 1998, Ms. Walker and Mr. Stefan established a joint savings account at the Industrial Bank. Prior to creating the account, Ms. Walker contacted Rovenia Daniels, then the assistant branch manager at the Industrial Bank, where Ms. Walker, a domiciliary of the District of Columbia, had maintained a number of accounts through the years, including one with her great nephew, Mr. Young. Ms. Walker informed Ms. Daniels that she wanted to remove Mr. Young's name from her account. Ms. Daniels advised that the account with Mr. Young would have to be closed and a new one opened because the bank "did not delete names from accounts." Ms. Walker indicated that she would visit the bank "as soon as she could get 'Stan' [Mr. Stefan]" to take her there.

When Ms. Walker and Mr. Stefan, her close friend,*fn2 went to the bank a few days later, Ms. Walker stated her desire to close her joint account with Mr. Young and to open one jointly with Mr. Stefan. Initially Ms. Walker wanted Ms. Daniels' name on the account, but Ms. Daniels explained that the addition of her name would be improper, since she was a bank employee. Ms. Daniels' affidavit declares that Ms. Walker instructed her to "add Stan's name because I don't want [Mr. Young] to have one red cent."*fn3 During his deposition, Mr. Stefan confirmed that Ms. Walker told Ms. Daniels, "I don't want [Mr. Young] to have one red cent."

Ms. Walker established the account as an "either or" account, meaning that either Ms. Walker or Mr. Stefan had the authority to withdraw funds from the account, without the consent of the other. In her affidavit Ms. Daniels states: "I explained to Ms. Walker that opening the account as she instructed meant that Mr. Stefan could withdraw all of the money any time he wanted to, even if it was only ten minutes after the [bank signature] cards were filed. She said that was alright with her." Ms. Daniels also stated: "Account No. 624 1336 was opened so that either Ms. Walker or Mr. Stefan could make withdrawals without the signature of the other person because they were both owners of the account and that is the way Ms. Walker wanted it to be."

Mr. Stefan made no withdrawals from the account during Ms. Walker's lifetime; nor did Ms. Walker. Mr. Young declared during his deposition that there was always "around $178,000, $184,000" in the account. He also testified that: "[I]f you look back over that account, you'll see that she never withdrew from that account from the day she opened it when my grandmother's name was on it, when my father's name was on it, and my name was on it." In addition, Mr. Young pointed out that Ms. Walker would cash her Social Security checks and keep "large amounts of cash on her," which she apparently used for her everyday needs, and as "emergency money." Mr. Stefan asserted that Ms. Walker "would accumulate Social Security checks. . . ." He would then take her to the bank at her request where "she would cash them, put some money in the account, and retain the rest of the cash for herself."

After Ms. Walker's death on September 23, 1999, Mr. Stefan withdrew $8,633.91 from the account on October 4, 1999, to pay her funeral expenses, leaving a balance of $174,431.47. Subsequently, on November 22, 1999, without Mr. Stefan's knowledge, Mr. Young's attorney transferred the remaining savings account funds to an estate account, including interest in the amount of $597.95, for a total of $175,029.42.*fn4

On June 20, 2000, Mr. Stefan filed suit against Ms. Walker's estate seeking the proceeds of the joint savings account, and alleging that "[i]t was [d]ecedent's expressed intent that the account would be for the benefit of Plaintiff upon her death." The parties later filed cross-motions for summary judgment.

On July 18, 2001, the trial court granted Mr. Young's summary judgment motion. The trial judge concluded that Mr. Stefan failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence "that the proceeds in the account were an inter vivos gift from the decedent." The court declared, in part:

This record does not contain unambiguous proof of donative intent and contains no unambiguous proof of delivery of these funds to the plaintiff during the decedent's lifetime.

. . . [I]t is obvious that the decedent . . . was merely taking steps to shield her assets from [Mr. Young]. She was a layperson and she was elderly. She did not realize that adding the name of [Mr.] Stefan to the account had no real connection to preventing access to her account by [Mr. Young]. She did not understand that her nephew simply could not access her funds if his name was not on the account. If this was her objective, she only needed to remove her nephew's name in order to accomplish her goal. Alternatively, she only might have wanted to send her nephew a demonstrative message, since she continued to use the account [as] she had done previously. In either event, her change in the titling of the account was only an act of personal convenience.


Mr. Stefan contends that the trial court drew erroneous conclusions concerning the elements of a valid inter vivos gift: delivery, donative intent, and absolute disposition. Mr. Young argues that "Mr. Stefan has failed to provide sufficient proof as to every essential element of gift in order for him to prevail."*fn5

Our standard of review of a summary judgment motion, which is de novo, see Wallace v. Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, 799 A.2d 381, 385 (D.C. 2002), is a familiar one: "[T]he movant [] must demonstrate that there is no genuine issue of material fact, and that [the movant] is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Isaac v. First Nat'l Bank of Maryland, D.C., 647 A.2d 1159, 1160 (D.C. 1994); see also Colbert v. Georgetown Univ., 641 A.2d 469, 472 (D.C. 1994) (en banc). Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56 (c) governing summary judgment motions specifies that: "The judgment sought shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Furthermore, "since the moving party carries the burden of proving no genuine issue of fact in dispute, 'the material lodged in support of the motion must be viewed in the light most favorable to the opposing party.'" Nader v. Toledano, 408 A.2d 31, 42 (D.C. 1979) (citations omitted). "If the offered evidence and its inferences would permit the factfinder to hold for the nonmoving party under the appropriate burden of proof, the motion for summary judgment should be denied." Id. (emphasis in original).

In addition, "[i]f 'the case turns on controverted facts and the credibility of witnesses, the case is properly for the jury.'" National R.R. Passenger Corp. v. McDavitt, 804 A.2d 275, 280 (D.C. 2002) (citing Corley v. BP Oil Corp., 402 A.2d 1258, 1263 (D.C. 1979)) (quoting Aylor v. Intercounty Constr. Corp., 127 U.S. App. D.C. 151, 155, 381 F.2d 930, 934 (1967)); see also Uckele v. Jewett,642 A.2d 119, 124 (D.C. 1994) ("resolution of witnesses' credibility is an issue left to a jury"); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986) ("Credibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge, whe[n] he [or she] is ruling on a motion for summary judgment[.]")."If the witness has an interest in the outcome of a case, and . . . if evidence opposing [a] presumption is contradictory or reasonably subject to contradictory interpretations[,] the question becomes one for the trier of the facts." Uckele, supra, 642 A.2d at 124 (quoting Davis, supra, 492 A.2d at 887) (other citation omitted) (emphasis in original).

Since the trial court granted Mr. Young's motion for summary judgment, we review the record in the light most favorable to Mr. Stefan. But, we are mindful both that Mr. Stefan has the burden of establishing an inter vivos gift from Ms. Walker to him by clear and convincing evidence, and that there is a presumption that the joint account was one of convenience. As we reiterated in In re Estate of Delaney, 819 A.2d 968 (D.C. 2003):

In the District of Columbia, "[w]here a party opens a joint account for [her]self and another without consideration, the account is presumed opened for the convenience of that party." Davis v. Altmann, 492 A.2d [884,] 885 [(D.C. 1985)]. See also Murray v. Gadsden, 91 U.S. App. D.C. 38, 44, 197 F.2d 194, 200 (1952), Edstrom v. Kuder, 351 A.2d 506, 509 n.7 (D.C. 1976). This convenience account presumption always applies where the funds were deposited by only one of the parties, even where the printed bank card signed by the parties recites a right of survivorship. Imirie [v. Imirie], 100 U.S. App. D.C. 371[, 372], 246 F.2d [652,] 653 [(1957)]. The presumption puts the person who is claiming that the account carried a right of survivorship in the position of claiming that the account funds were an inter vivos gift, and shifts the burden of proof to that person. Harrington v. Emmerman, 88 U.S. App. D.C. 23, 27, 186 F.2d 757, 761 (1950); Duggan [v. Keto], 554 A.2d [1126,] 1134 [(D.C. 1989)]; Davis v. Altmann, supra, 492 A.2d at 885. When the claim of an inter vivos gift comes after the alleged donor has died, the gift must be proven by clear and convincing evidence. Uckele v. Jewett, 642 A.2d 119, 123 (D.C. 1994); Duggan, supra, 554 A.2d at 1134; Estate of Presgrave v. Stephens, 529 A.2d 274, 280 (D.C. 1987).

Id. at 990.

Mr. Stefan must establish by clear and convincing evidence that Ms. Walker made a valid inter vivos gift to him.*fn6 To do so, he must overcome the presumption that the joint bank account was created for Ms. Walker's convenience; and must also satisfy "the requisites of a valid gift inter vivos[:] delivery, intention on the part of the donor to make a gift, and absolute disposition of the subject of the gift." Presgrave, supra, 529 A.2d at 280 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). "The presumption is merely a judicial inference as to probable intent. . . ." United States v. Taylor, 276 U.S. App. D.C. 84, 87, 867 F.2d 700, 703 (1989). It "is rebuttable[,] . . . [and] may be overcome by showing that [Ms. Walker] intended to give [Mr. Stefan] a present interest in the [joint savings account] at the time she established the [account]." Richardson, supra, 522 A.2d at 1298 (citing Harrington, supra, 88 U.S. App. D.C. at 27, 186 F.2d at 761). In rebutting the presumption and showing intent, Mr. Stefan may rely upon reasonable inferences, in light of the applicable evidentiary standard, that are drawn from depositions and other documents. See Imirie, supra, 100 U.S. App. D.C. at 372, 246 F.2d at 653; see also Uckele, supra, 642 A.2d at 124.

In determining whether Mr. Stefan satisfied the element of donative intent, the trial court viewed the issue in the light most favorable to Mr. Young, rather than the opposing party, Mr. Stefan. The court interpreted Ms. Walker's words, "add [Mr. Stefan's] name because I don't want [Mr. Young] to have one red cent," to mean that Ms. Walker wanted a "convenience account," an inference favorable to Mr. Young. As the court put it:

If [Ms. Walker] was disgruntled with her nephew, her motive for titling this account as a joint account was quite obviously a matter of her expressing her personal pique. This is ...

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