May 8th, 2019

Jointly Titled Accounts are Not Necessarily Jointly Owned Accounts

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If your name is on a joint account, can you be charged with the theft of funds from that account? The surprising answer may come from a case recently decided by the Court of Appeals of Maryland1.

Introduction to the Case

Jacqueline Wagner petitioned the Maryland Court of Appeals to overturn her theft conviction arguing that using funds for her own purposes from a joint bank account with her father was not criminal and did not amount to theft.

The Court of Appeals held that the funds of Ms. Wagner’s father, although placed in a joint account with her name on it, could be stolen by the joint account holder where, as in this case, she willfully or knowingly obtained or exerted unauthorized control over those funds without her father’s consent and with the intent to deprive him of his funds. 

Implications

Statutorily granted authority permitting a party to a joint or multiple-party account to access and withdraw funds from that account does not confer ownership of the funds in the account such that a defense to theft is provided. In plain English, simply having your name on an account does not give you the right to spend someone else’s money as you please. If you do, you may run afoul of the criminal laws and be incarcerated as a result.

Oftentimes parents, for reasons of convenience as they age or while they travel, will add to a joint account the name of a child or other trusted person “just in case something happens” or to “pay bills while I’m gone” or to “deposit my checks and do my banking for me.” It is against this background that the Court in Wagner set out to distinguish the authority for accessing an account from the authority to use the money in the account for one’s own purpose and not for the purpose the original owner intended.

Case Summary: Wagner v. State

In fighting her conviction for theft, Ms. Wagner argued to the Court of Appeals that, under Maryland code2 , “she had full authority to exert control over the funds in the account as a party to the account, and her ability to legally withdraw funds from the account constituted an ownership interest in those funds.” Ms. Wagner further maintained that, because she was a party to the account, “there was no restriction on her withdrawal of funds.”

In response, the prosecution argued that the Maryland code Ms. Wagner referenced3 deals with account access, not account ownership. The prosecution further argued that the statute Ms. Wagner was using as her defense does not confer ownership of an account, but instead provides only authorization to withdraw funds from the account, absent some other agreement between the financial institution and the parties to the account.

The Defendant and the Prosecution had clearly staked out their grounds.

The Appellate Court looked at existing Maryland criminal law4 in reaching its decision. The facts showed that Mr. Wagner had added his daughter to his account to allow her access to his funds if something happened to him and to use for his benefit. The Trial Court, after taking testimony, believed that Mr. Wagner’s daughter knew that the funds belonged to her father and that she withdrew funds for her own purposes, depriving her father of thousands of dollars.

The Court of Appeals, in upholding the criminal conviction of the daughter in this case, further explained that existing law provides that, “unless the account agreement expressly provides otherwise, the funds in a multiple party account may be withdrawn by any party or by a convenience person5 for any party or parties whether or not any other party to the account is incapacitated or deceased.”6 After further review, the Court found that “…equating the authority to withdraw with ownership strains the clear language of Financial Institution Section 1-204F beyond recognition.”

Distilling Maryland case law, the Court of Appeals stated that the fact finder, whether that be a judge or a jury, must determine:

  1. The original owner of the money on deposit;
  2. The intention of that owner as to the funds;
  3. The mechanics employed to effectuate that intent; and
  4. The effectiveness of those mechanics.

The Wagner case contained multiple facts that convinced the Court that Mr. Wagner had not gifted to his daughter any ownership interest in his money while he was alive. Not even the signature card at the bank listing the daughter as a joint owner was dispositive in the daughter’s defense. What convinced the Court that Ms. Wagner committed a theft was her father’s testimony and her agreement that the money was to be used for the father’s needs. Her attempts to defeat and deflect the testimony by using Maryland’s Financial Institutions Article failed. In the end, lawful access does not amount to ownership and use of the money, if contrary to the intention of the original owner, can give rise to prosecution for theft.

It is important to note that the theft section of the Maryland code, under which Ms. Wagner was prosecuted and convicted7, allows only certain defenses. Notwithstanding those defenses, Ms. Wagner could not overcome the testimony of her father and the blatant manner in which she used his funds for her own benefit. Her assertion of a good-faith claim of right to the property by citing the Financial Institutions Article was not successful.

Takeaways

  1. Issues concerning husbands and wives need to be evaluated under both the Family Law Article and the Criminal Procedure Article with close scrutiny to the facts as they relate to the property in question.
  2. Simply being named on a joint account, without more evidence, does not indicate a completed gift from the original owner of the asset to the joint signatory on the account such that the joint signatory may use the money or asset for his/her own purposes.
  3. Access to the account and the ability to withdraw from the account, although lawful, must be done in accordance with the parties’ agreements and understandings.
  4. Lawful access may still run afoul of the Maryland theft statutes if the access to and withdrawal of funds are used contrary to the agreement of the parties.

In the end, the use of convenience accounts or joint accounts creates fiduciary relationships and not ownership. A party who is placed on a joint account must be very careful that the terms for the use of assets in the account are plainly spelled out. Clear and unequivocal steps should be taken to document how the account is to be used. Such documentation may be in the form of a written agreement between the account holders, an official bank document or statement, or other written documentation. In doing so, he or she will be better protected from charges of theft if, at some later date, a complaint is made that money was used contrary to the owner’s benefit.

Stein Sperling founder Paul Stein brings to his clients decades of experience representing individuals and businesses in state and federal courts, as well as alternative dispute venues. His strength lies in using his well-honed trial skills to anticipate the human factors presented by judges, juries, witnesses and opposing counsel in court. Paul concentrates his practice in the areas of criminal defense, complex contested family law matters and estate litigation.

1 See Wagner v. State, 128 A.3rd 1 (Md. 2015).
2 Financial Institution Section 1-204
3 Financial Institution Section 1-204
4 Maryland Code Annotated Criminal Law Section 7-104A; Maryland Code Annotated Criminal Law Section 7-101J
5 According to Financial Institutions 1-204B, a convenience person is defined as “any person who is authorized to drawn upon funds in an account: i. under a Power of Attorney, given one or more parties to the account or ii. by virtue of a designation in the account agreement appointing that person as agent of a party or the parties to the account for the convenience of the party or parties.”
6 Financial Institutions Article 1-204F
7 Criminal Law Article Section 7-110