Eldon and Constance divorce in 1992.
Eldon dies in 2020 never having removed Constance’s name from a joint bank account.
When they divorced, the account held $1,481.00. When Eldon died, it had $144,000.
The Judgment of Divorce (“JOD”) does not say anything about this specific account or joint assets in general. It says only that: “each party shall hold as their sole and separate property, free and clear from any claim thereto by the other, any property whether real, personal, or mixed, which each shall have in his or her possession or which shall acquire in his or her individual capacity on or after the date of this agreement.”
Constance admits she had no idea the account even existed and made no contributions to it. PR, files a petition seeking ownership in the estate. Constance claims she gets it as the surviving joint owner.
Surviving owner gets the money – right?
Of course not.
Trial court arrives at the desired conclusion by noting that, when they divorced, Constance had an attorney and Eldon didn’t. Therefore, the trial judge reasons, Constance’s attorney drafted the JOD, and so any ambiguity in the JOD must be construed in favor of Eldon.
The Court of Appeals affirms the trial court outcome but takes a different path to get there. The COA notes that a bank account is “personal property” and that after the divorce, Eldon was in “sole possession” of the account and therefore, they reason, the terms of the JOD gave the account to Eldon.
I’m not sure that when two people jointly own a bank account, it can be said to be “solely” in the possession of just one of them, but OK. We knew Constance wasn’t going to win.
Side note: COA says that even though the case should have been initiated as a civil action and not a probate proceeding, that error does not impact the outcome and can be disregarded.
In Re Estate of Eldon Knoblock is unpublished. Click on the name to read the case.