Newman v. Thomas

Decision Date25 October 2002
Docket NumberNo. S-01-939.,S-01-939.
Citation652 N.W.2d 565,264 Neb. 801
PartiesIvorie Pearl NEWMAN, Personal Representative of the Estate of John Henry M. Chamberlin, deceased, Appellee, v. Alfred THOMAS, Appellant.
CourtNebraska Supreme Court

Robert C. McGowan, Jr., of McGowan & McGowan, Omaha, for appellant.

Michael D. McClellan, of Nelson McClellan, Omaha, for appellee.

HENDRY, C.J., WRIGHT, CONNOLLY, GERRARD, STEPHAN, McCORMACK, and MILLER-LERMAN, JJ.

CONNOLLY, J.

In this case, we must decide whether the Nebraska Probate Code requires the owner of a non-pay-on-death, single-party account to give his or her financial institution signed written notice to add a pay-on-death (POD) beneficiary to the account. Before his death, John Henry M. Chamberlin opened a single-party certificate of deposit account (CD) with no POD beneficiary at American National Bank (American National). Although there is some evidence that Chamberlin attempted to add the appellant, Alfred Thomas, as a POD beneficiary, it is undisputed that Chamberlin did not give American National signed written notice. The district court ruled that Chamberlin's signed written notice was required and entered summary judgment for Ivorie Pearl Newman, the personal representative of Chamberlin's estate. We affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

In May 1997, Chamberlin opened a non-POD, single-party CD with American National. A standard form was used to open the CD. Consistent with its normal practice, American National gave Chamberlin the original form and retained two copies for its records.

Chamberlin died on April 16, 1999. His will named his sister, Newman, as the personal representative. On August 31, Newman requested American National to deposit the proceeds of the CD into an estate checking account at American National. American National then deposited about $50,000, the proceeds of the CD, into the estate checking account. At the time the funds were deposited, Newman was not aware of any other claims on the CD.

Thomas had been Chamberlin's friend and had helped Chamberlin with errands and household chores. After Chamberlin's death, Thomas arrived at an American National branch and claimed that before Chamberlin's death, he had made Thomas a POD beneficiary to the CD. When Thomas arrived at American National, he presented the original form issued to Chamberlin when he opened the CD. On the area of the form designated for the names of POD beneficiaries, someone had typed "POD ALFORD THOMAS [sic]." Someone had also placed a handwritten "x" in the box labeled "Single Party Account with Pay on Death." Notably, next to this box is a space for the owner's initials. This space is blank.

As noted above, American National retained two copies of the form used when Chamberlin opened the CD. "POD AFORD THOMAS" and the handwritten "x" do not appear on either of these copies. No one at American National knows who made the changes. In addition, American National has no other document or record indicating that Chamberlin requested that Thomas be made a POD beneficiary to the CD.

Thomas claims that an American National employee, Patrice Smith, was responsible for making the handwritten "x" and typing "POD ALFORD THOMAS." According to Thomas' deposition testimony, in January or February 1998, he drove Chamberlin to an American National branch so that Chamberlin could withdraw interest from the CD. While there, Chamberlin met with Smith. Thomas claims he was present throughout this meeting and that during the meeting, Chamberlin orally requested that Thomas be added as the POD beneficiary to the CD. Thomas stated that Chamberlin then handed Smith the original form used to open the CD and that she "typed something" on it. Thomas also claimed that Chamberlin signed at least one and perhaps two documents during the meeting. Thomas admitted, however, that he did not notice what Chamberlin was signing.

Chamberlin's signature appears three times on the original form used to open the CD. Two of these signatures were clearly made when the account was opened. The third signature is under a notation made on the second page. The notation refers to a withdrawal of interest made on January 7, 1998. The notation contains no reference to the addition of Thomas as a POD beneficiary.

In her deposition, Smith said that she does not remember the January 1998 meeting with Chamberlin. She also testified that she does not know if she made the handwritten "x" or typed "POD AFORD THOMAS."

After Thomas attempted to claim the CD, American National froze the estate checking account into which it had previously deposited the proceeds from the CD. Newman then filed this declaratory judgment action against American National and Thomas. American National filed a motion seeking leave to deposit the disputed funds into court. The court granted the motion and dismissed American National.

Newman moved for summary judgment. At the summary judgment hearing, Thomas filed an affidavit under Neb.Rev.Stat. § 25-1335 (Reissue 1995) seeking a continuance so that Thomas could have an expert analyze whether Smith's typewriter had been used to type "POD ALFORD THOMAS." The court treated the affidavit as a motion to resist summary judgment.

The court entered summary judgment for Newman. It held that to change Chamberlin's CD to a POD account, the Nebraska Probate Code required him to give signed written notice to American National requesting that the bank add Thomas as a POD beneficiary. Because there was no evidence that Chamberlin had given signed written notice to American National, the court granted Newman summary judgment. Thomas appealed.

II. ASSIGNMENTS OF ERROR

Thomas assigns, rephrased and reordered, that the district court erred in (1) interpreting and applying the applicable provisions of the Nebraska Probate Code, (2) granting Newman's motion for summary judgment, and (3) failing to order a continuance of the summary judgment hearing.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is proper when the pleadings, depositions, admissions, stipulations, and affidavits in the record disclose that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact or as to the ultimate inferences that may be drawn from those facts and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. American Fam. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Hadley, 264 Neb. 435, 648 N.W.2d 769 (2002).

Statutory interpretation presents a question of law, on which an appellate court has an obligation to reach an independent conclusion irrespective of the decision made by the court below. American Bus. Info. v. Egr, ante, 264 Neb. 574, 650 N.W.2d 251 (2002); A-1 Metro Movers v. Egr, 264 Neb. 291, 647 N.W.2d 593 (2002).

IV. ANALYSIS
1. INTERPRETATION OF APPLICABLE PROVISIONS OF NEBRASKA PROBATE CODE

Article 27 of the Nebraska Probate Code governs nonprobate transfers, including POD accounts. See Neb.Rev.Stat. §§ 30-2715 through 30-2746 (Reissue 1995). In 1993, the Legislature repealed the previous version of article 27 and replaced it with a version based on the revised article VI of the Uniform Probate Code. The revised version of article 27 governs this case.

Under the revised article 27, when the owner of a POD, single-party account dies, the sums on deposit belong to the surviving beneficiary or beneficiaries. § 30-2723(b)(2). A non-POD, single-party account, however, is not affected by the death of the owner. Instead, the amount the owner was beneficially entitled to immediately before death is transferred to the estate. § 30-2723(c). If Chamberlin's CD was a POD, single-party account with Thomas as the beneficiary, Thomas is entitled to the proceeds from the CD. But, if Chamberlin never successfully added Thomas as the CD's POD beneficiary, then Chamberlin's estate is entitled to the proceeds.

The district court determined that § 30-2724 governs changing a non-POD, single-party account into a POD account. Section 30-2724 provides:

(a) Rights at death under section 30-2723 are determined by the type of account at the death of a party. The type of account may be altered by written notice given by a party to the financial institution to change the type of account or to stop or vary payment under the terms of the account. The notice must be signed by a party and received by the financial institution during the party's lifetime.

(Emphasis supplied.) The court interpreted the emphasized language as making the signed written notice of a party to the account a mandatory requirement for changing the type of account.

Thomas claims that the court made two errors in interpreting § 30-2724. First, he claims that the language sets out a permissive rather than a mandatory method for changing the type of account. Second, he argues that even if the language of § 30-2724 is mandatory, the section applies only to the modification of an existing multiparty or POD account and not to the creation of a multiparty or POD account. We disagree with both of these arguments.

(a) Is Language of § 30-2724 Mandatory?

Thomas argues that the use of the word "may" in § 30-2724 sets out a permissive rather than a mandatory method for altering the type of account. See Neb.Rev.Stat. § 49-802(1) (Reissue 1998) ("[w]hen the word may appears, permissive or discretionary action is presumed"). Newman counters that "may" in § 30-2724 refers only to the ability of a party to alter the form of his or her account. She argues that § 30-2724 is permissive in the sense that a party may choose to change his or her account from one form to another. But, to put the change into effect, the party must give his or her financial institution signed written notice.

In the absence of anything to the contrary, statutory language is to be given its plain and ordinary meaning; an appellate court will not resort to interpretation to ascertain the meaning of statutory words which are plain, direct, and unambiguous. Capital City Telephone v. Nebraska Dept. of Rev., 264 Neb. 515, 650 N.W.2d 467 (2002). Neither Thomas'...

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