Here is a new twist to follow our recent series titled “Possession is Nine-Tenths of the Law, Part 1”, “Possession is Nine-Tenths of the Law, Part 2”, and “Possession is Nine-Tenths of the Law, Part 3”. A case illustrating the difficulties in determining jointly owned versus individually property is the Connell case. In that case, the decedent was an elderly retired jeweler who liked expensive jewelry. While shopping with his wife, (a woman he married only eleven (11) months prior to his death), Mr. Connell bought a $60,000.00 men’s Rolex watch and a $20,000.00 men’s diamond ring. On both occasions he used funds from a checking account titled jointly with his wife; his wife knew of these purchases and did not object. Mr. Connell wore the watch and ring every day. Shortly before his death, he was hospitalized and gave the watch and ring to his wife for safekeeping. She put them in her purse. After Connell’s death, his son/personal representative asked the wife to return the watch and ring. She refused and the lawsuit ensued.

The court determined that although the watch and ring were purchased with funds from a joint account, the items were not owned jointly with the wife. The reasoning was that because Mr. Connell withdrew funds from a bank account that was held with in joint-tenancy with right of survivorship, when the funds were withdrawn it terminated the joint tenancy nature of the funds and severed the right of survivorship. Essentially, because the funds were withdrawn from the joint account, the funds lost their joint character. Additionally, the wife knew of the purchases and did not object. The watch and ring were for the decedent’s exclusive use (he wore them every day), so they were held to be property of his estate, not the wife. She had to turn them over to Mr. Connell’s son.

These types of cases are very fact specific. A slight change in the fact pattern could alter the result. This illustrates why it is so important to have an estate plan that specifically addresses who is to receive all expensive items of personal property as well as items of sentimental value which might be fought over . . . and to update that plan after a late in life marriage.

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