Several years ago, in my second decade of practicing law, I learned a lot about estate disasters. My mother's aunt had substantial financial resources - resources saved and invested over the many decades of her life. She and her now-deceased husband had saved for old age - for security in their retirement years. She owned her own San Francisco home, had a secure pension and a large stock portfolio. Then, in her early 90s, she had a caregiver to assist her at a time of her decreased mobility, limited hearing, other sensory deficits and lost driving privileges.
Image Credit: -JvL- on Flickr
An unexpectedly large number of people open safe deposit boxes, leave them alone for several years, and forget the box ever existed. According to the Sacramento Bee, the California State Controller's Office had the contents of more than 138,000 safe deposit boxes under its control in 2017, including more than 75,000 US Savings Bonds worth more than $30 Million. Sometimes banks move, and sometimes box holders move, but the usual way in which boxes get forgotten is when someone dies.
When "an elderly person with a joint bank account dies, do the funds belong to the decedent's estate or do they belong to the additional signer as a co-owner of the account?" A recent California Court of Appeal case held that "[s]ums remaining on deposit at the death of a party to a joint account belong to the surviving party . . . as against the estate of the decedent unless there is clear and convincing evidence of a different intent." This is a basic or black-letter rule, a clear statement of the law. It is also a trap for those inclined to seize upon a seemingly clear explanation of the law that leaves no room for interpretation or nuance.
Anxiety fueled by grief is a part of the inventory process of a decedent's property. A family member is tasked by practicality, family consensus, or an estate document to gather a decedent's assets. Some assets are obvious - a house, documented bank accounts and securities and onsite personal property. Other assets are more opaque - physically separated in a financial institution safe deposit box or a house or office safe.