Court Finds Joint Account Does Not Pass To Surviving Owner, But Passes Under Decedent’s Will

Most of the cases discussed on this blog (and, I suspect, on most blogs which spotlight developments in the law) focus principally on decisions issued by the higher-level courts, the appellate courts and the supreme court of the state.  However, the majority of court decisions in New Jersey and other states are issued by trial courts. These are the work-horses of the judiciary, managing lawsuits, hearing witnesses, conducting trials and issuing decisions, year in and year out, in every cases filed. However, unlike the decisions produced by higher level courts, most trial court decisions were, until quite recently, typically not published and, therefore, usually not available to anyone but the parties involved in the lawsuit and their lawyers. The status quo is changing, however. The judiciary is slowly entering the internet age. As a result, trial court opinions are increasingly becoming available for review by the public. In New Jersey, trial court judges can now post their written decision on the state’s judicial website, at

Now that the public has access to these previously unpublished decisions, it is apparent that many of the decisions prepared by trial judges are excellent, well-prepared and well-reasoned. There is something more, too: trial court decisions are direct, plain-spoken, candid, and written with the practicality required to achieve resolution in a dispute when the fight is right in front of the court. Trial judges have first-hand knowledge of the facts of the case through their management of the lawsuit in extended pre-trial proceedings and observation of the witnesses at trial. As a result, trial court decisions have an immediacy often lacking in decisions by higher court judges, who have usually never met the parties and know the facts of the case only by reading the record. Trial decisions are engaging to read. I’ve recently blogged about several trial court decisions posted on the judicial website. Those blog posts can be found here, here and here.

Several days ago, Hon. Peter E. Doyne, A.J. S.C., a trial court judge in Bergen County, posted an interesting trial opinion on the state judicial website in a case entitled In The Matter Of The Estate Of Pasquale Suraci, Deceased, Docket No. BER – P – 284 – 09 (Bergen Cty., Chan. Div., August 9, 2010).

The matter came before the court on parties’ respective motions for partial summary judgment. The dispute involved conflicting claims of ownership of approx. $100,000 in a TD Ameritrade investment account. The account was owned by Pasquale Suraci (the “decedent”) and his daughter, Flora, as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. Plaintiffs, decedent’s grandchildren, asked the court to treat the account as part of decedent’s probate estate and order that the account be distributed in accordance with the decedent’s will. Flora, on the other hand, claimed that she became the sole owner of the account as a matter of law under New Jersey’s Multiple-Party Deposit Account Act (the “Act”), which provides that the contents of a joint account shall pass to the surviving joint owner upon the death of one of joint owners “unless there is clear and convincing evidence of a difference intention at the time the account is created … .” The issues identified by the Court were as follows: whether New Jersey law mandates the account pass to Flora by operation of law, whether the account was the result of undue influence based upon his purported confidential relationship with his daughter and son-in-law, and whether decedent intended for this account to be transferred to defendant upon his death or whether it was merely a convenience account intended to be transferred back to the estate and probated according to the terms of his will.

After analyzing the Act, Judge Doyne concluded that the Act does not govern securities and brokerage accounts such as the TD Ameritrade investment account owned by the decedent at the time of his death. Accordingly, the court denied Flora’s motion for partial summary judgment. Judge Doyne then analyzed plaintiffs’ claims of undue influence and similar claims and determined that they were all “fact sensitive” determinations, contested by defendant, which could not properly be decided in a summary manner. As a result, plaintiffs’ motion for partial summary judgment was also denied.

The case is annexed here – In The Matter Of The Estate Of Pasquale Suraci, Deceased