Joint accounts are common but most people do not understand the rights of each named account owner. While the titling of joint accounts will determine who may access such accounts from the bank’s perspective (with the use of an “and” or “or” designation, requiring both or just one owner to access, respectively), ownership is not defined by access. Simply put, even though a named owner may have access to the full account balance, it does not mean that such owner is legally entitled to all the account funds.
Florida law presumes that joint tenants maintain an equal share of account funds, and a joint tenant may properly bring an action for conversion against a joint account holder who appropriates more than his or her share of the account amounts. See Joseph v. Chanin, 940 So.2d 483, (Fla. 4th DCA 2006); Hamilton v. Trapp, 392 So.2d 1001 (Fla. 4th DCA 1981); and Nationsbank v. Coastal Utils., Inc., 814 So.2d 1227, 1229 (Fla. 4th DCA 2002).
In Constance v. Constance, 366 So.2d 804, (Fla. 1st DCA 1979) the Court recognized the strong presumption of joint ownership of funds in joint accounts stating that “there is no doubt that as between the depositor and his joint signer, there is a strong presumption of joint ownership.” More importantly, in the absence of strong evidence of a contrary intent, the joint ownership will not be disturbed. See Hinkle v. State, 355 So.2d 465 (Fla.3d DCA 1978); Cape Coral Bank v. Kinney, 321 So.2d 597 (Fla.2d DCA 1975); Spark v. Canny, 88 So.2d 307 (Fla.1956); and Maier v. Bean, 189 So.2d 380 (Fla.2d DCA 1966). Likewise, the Florida Supreme Court in Beal Bank, SSB v. Almand & Associates, 780 So.2d 45 (Fla.2001) recognized that “[i]n a joint tenancy with right of survivorship, each person has only his or her own separate share (‘per my’)[.]” Id. at 53. The shares in the joint account “[are] presumed to be equal for purposes of alienation[.]”
Even further, in De Soto v. Guardianship of De Soto 664 So.2d 66, (Fla. 3rd DCA,1995) the Court held that funds contributed to a joint bank account by one of the owners of the account are presumed to be a gift to the other owners of the account absent clear and convincing evidence to the contrary. Hagopian v. Zimmer, 653 So.2d 474 (Fla. 3d DCA 1995). Even more, the interests of all joint owners in the funds survive their transfer from the account by one of the owners. In re Guardianship of Medley, 573 So.2d 892 (Fla. 2d DCA 1990).
Account holders believe they can properly dispossess a joint account holder of the total account funds simply because such person has access to the funds and they win the race to the bank. However, such action may lead to civil liability from the joint account tenant. And if such action was purposeful, (to stick it to a business partner or soon-to-be ex-spouse), there may be liability for triple damages and attorney’s fees under Florida’s civil theft statute – in addition to a traditional claim for conversion.
Simply put, you can be liable for stealing from a joint account holder.
Article by: Andrew Douglas, Esq., Andrew Douglas, P.A., 954.474.4420