My Bank Teller, My Estate Planner

I just read a fun and interesting court opinion by Judge Paula Ott regarding the Estate of John J. Strahsmeier.  Of course, what I find “fun and interesting” would be considered “insufferably boring” by 99.99% of the U.S. population. There is just no accounting for taste.

 

Some people find it fun and interesting to stick their heads under water to see how long before they lose consciousness. Others find it fun and interesting to hang out by a hole in the ice on a frozen lake hoping a frozen fish will bite a frozen bait. At least reading court opinions is not generally dangerous unless I get so engrossed that I do not hear my wife paging me.

 

What I found fun in the Strahsmeier case, apart from the cool name, is the voyeuristic pleasure of reading about a bitter family dispute. So far, the battle between a son, John T., and his two sisters, Rose Regan and Lois Phillips, has resulted in four and a half years of litigation. The legal fees are probably approaching the amount at stake, $148,000, but they are not fighting over the money. They are fighting over who received better birthday presents as children and who was most favored by the parents. However, the legal question of who gets the money is the interesting part.

 

The bulk of John J.’s money was in an account designated “ITF Rose Regan.” An in-trust-for (ITF) account, like a pay-on-death (POD) or transfer-on-death (TOD) account, passes on the account owner’s death to the trust beneficiary. This result may be overcome by clear and convincing evidence that the account owner did not intend for the money to go to that person. Joint bank accounts present similar problems.

 

Strahsmeier’s daughters, Rose and Lois, agreed that the money should be Rose’s. John T. argued that his father put Rose’s name on the account just for convenience, so it should be part of the probate estate. The probate estate would pass according to the will and be split evenly.

 

It is usually hard to show clear and convincing evidence to overcome the the ITF designation, but John J. had detailed notebooks backing up his will. These made it clear that he wanted all three of his children to share the funds in the ITF account. That John T. won was an uncommon result in a very common situation.

 

Joint, ITF, POD, or TOD accounts that conflict with the estate plan in a will or trust show up in most decedents’ estates. The heirs typically agree on how the account should be handled. In other cases, there is not enough at stake to fight over. Rarely is there litigation. However, there are always emotional – if not physical – bruises no matter how the matter is resolved. The saddest aspect is that the problem could be avoided if account holders ask an attorney instead of a bank teller how to set up their bank accounts.

 

Bank, brokerage, retirement, and other accounts must be set up in conformity with the broader estate plan. A bank teller or financial employee may understand his or her products, but does not know how the over all plan is intended to work. A will or trust must never be executed without the assistance of an attorney. At the time the will or trust is signed, the attorney should explain how to title accounts and other property.

 

John J. Strahsmeier had a family attorney, but apparently did not listen to him. This was unfortunate for his family, but lucky for people who find court opinions fun and interesting. The lesson to be drawn is that how accounts are titled is extremely important. To make things easier for your family do not rely on your bank teller for estate-planning advice. Otherwise your estate may give rise to another fun and interesting court opinion. For more on why even as simple and common a document as a will can have pitfalls, read “Frustrating the Intent of the Testator.”

 

John B. Payne, Attorney
Garrison LawHouse, PC
Dearborn, Michigan 313.563.4900
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 800.220.7200
law-business.com
 
©2012 John B. Payne, Attorney
 

P.S. — as noted by Billy Whiteshoes Johnson in his comment, on July 11, 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court turned down the sisters’ appeal:  http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/Supreme/out/534WAL2012%20-%201014833101656316.pdf

 

P.P.S. — Judge Kathleen A. Durkin put the final nail in the appellants’ coffin on February 12, 2015 in an order entered on the estate’s motion for judgment.  The motion documents the hard work and outstanding litigation of the estate’s attorney, Robert J. Amelio, of Pittsburgh.  The order is at the end of this 101-page document: strahsmeier john order 02122015

No Comment on "My Bank Teller, My Estate Planner"

  • Michelle Baumeister

    Oh yes, so common (except the willingness to spend that much in litigation). Some of my best paying clients fought over who Mom liked best (and why). Or why so and so should have the baseball and thus and so should not have anything nice.

    Reply
  • Billy White shoes Johnson

    Both women should obviously be in jail for attempting to embezzle the money and they should also be forced to pay all the estates legal fees even if it comes from their own pockets. Greed, sheer greed and mabe jail time is in order for both of them.

    Reply
  • Billy White shoes Johnson

    SIr, i too have been following this affair and the latest developments are even more shocking. Now the one lawyer has been tossed in jail !!!!!!!!

    Reply
  • Billy Whiteshoes Johnson

    Following the case to the end The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has struck down the application for appeal made by the sisters and it looks like the end is near for them.

    Reply
  • Billy Whiteshoes Johnson

    I have continued to follow the case and now the one sister declared being bankrupt. I jsut wonder of the losing party will be forced to pay all the attorney fees. It should be interesting

    Reply
    • Losing parties are not generally responsible for the winning parties’ attorney fees. This is called the “American plan.” In England, the loser pays for the winner’s attorney.

      Here, the winner gets reimbursed by the loser for court costs, but that is a small amount covering such things as filing fees and the cost of serving process (having court papers delivered) or publication.

      There are some causes of action that include attorney fees, notably civil rights lawsuits against government actors who infringe on citizens’ civil, liberty or property rights. Some consumer protection and debt collection causes of action also give attorney fees to an individual who is wronged by a company.

      Finally, a party who uses litigation tactics that harass an opponent or who files frivolous, fraudulent or unfair pleadings with the court may be ordered to reimburse an opponent’s attorney fees in defending against the unfair claims. In such a hard-fought court battle as the Strahsmeier case, the sisters may have been ordered to pay their brother’s attorney fees, particularly on appeal. It depends on whether the court saw their legal claims as positions that a reasonable litigant would pursue in good faith.

      Reply
      • Billy Whiteshoes Johnson

        You should see the latest decree that has been handed down. The judge seems to have throw the book at the two women involved and justly so if one reads what is posted on the county web site.

        Reply
        • As noted by Billy, the judge pounded the sisters. The motion for judgment and the order can be read in the postscripts to the original post as strahsmeier john order 20122015.pdf.

          Reply
      • Mr. Payne,

        I found a blog that mentioned this post. As that blog suggested, I looked at the court docket to get a better understanding of the case.

        It doesn’t appear you are being completely upfront with your readers though. You failed to mention that you have an office across the street from Attorney Robert Amelio’s office.

        I’m puzzled that former football player Billy “WhiteShoes” Johnson (if it is him) would take such an interest in this case and post online about it.

        Reply
        • It’s a wide street.

          I do not know whether Mr. Johnson is the original White Shoes Johnson. If it is, I am honored, but not surprised. White Shoes had an amazing career and is still active in coaching. I am sure he is a bright and perceptive fellow who would appreciate a well-written blog post.

          Reply
        • It’s a wide street.

          I do not know whether Mr. Johnson is the original White Shoes Johnson. If it is, I am honored, but not surprised. White Shoes had an amazing career and is still active in coaching. I am sure he is a bright and perceptive fellow who would appreciate a well-written blog post.

          Reply
  • Pingback: Frustrating the Intent of the Testator | Off the Top o' My Head

  • Lawman and so the saga continues on for these three. They should bury the hatchet and write a book. I did a search and came up with a criminal affair and one of them now being charged with a couple felonies in that county too! Looking at the docket sheets the one sister has now hired a new lawyer to represent just her i guess and her partner has been more or less thrown under the bus due to the criminal charges. It is being appealed piece meal at present but i expect the superior court to make them do the whole case at once. These people should simply hire a writer and pen a book and they would maybe even get a movie deal in the end under law and order.

    Reply
    • How interesting that all replies go to Michelle Baumeister and not to lawman83. Are they two of you attorneys affiliated in some way? You should really let people know if you are in the interest of full disclosure.

      Reply
      • I cannot imagine why you would think that. Michelle follows my blog, since we know each other. She is an elder law attorney for who I have great respect, but we are in separate firms in different states.

        Reply

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