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In re Estate of John J. Strahsmeier

Case No. 1286 WDA 2011 (PA Superior Ct., Sep. 7, 2012)

Rose M. Regan and Lois A. Phillips, two of the three co-executors of the Estate of John J. Strahsmeier (“Estate”) appeal from the order of court entered on July 25, 2011 in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Orphans' Court Division, which denied their motions for reconsideration and stay and dismissed their exceptions to the July 1, 2011 order. After careful consideration of the submissions by the parties, official record, and relevant law, we affirm.

We summarize the long and tortuous factual and procedural history of this matter as follows:

Decedent died on September 13, 2008, survived by his three children, John T. Strahsmeier, Regan and Phillips (collectively “children”).

Decedent executed his Will on June 6, 2003. On February 13, 2006, Decedent established a money market checking account at First National Bank of Pennsylvania (“First National”). Decedent was the sole owner of this account. On October 17, 2006, Decedent revised ownership, listing Regan as “ITF” (hereinafter “ITF Account”). At various times, other accounts owned by Decedent were opened and revised at First National.

In May 2007, Decedent prepared binders (hereinafter “the binder”) containing detailed descriptions and information as to his funeral, burial, assets, debts, accounts, and estate management. The binders were given to Regan, Phillips, Strahsmeier, and C. Donald Gates, Jr., Esquire. All binders were updated regularly by Decedent.

The binder directs that upon his death, Strahsmeier, Regan, and Phillips were to take the monies from the accounts they shared with Decedent and deposit them into an estate account. The Estate Account would, after payment of debts, be divided equally among the children. The ITF Account containing the majority of the assets of the Estate was to become the Estate Account.


Judge(s): Paula Francisco Ott
Jurisdiction: Pennsylvania Superior Court
Related Categories: Wills / Trusts / Estates
Court of Appeals Judge(s)
Christine Donohue
Anne Lazarus
Paula Ott



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returned to the estate as directed by the orphans’ court. - 4 - mr. gates testified decedent’s plan, set forth in the binders, was to avoid rose m. regan and lois a. phillips, two of the three co-executors of generally speaking, generally speaking – forget about between them. 20 pa.c.s. § 6304(b) (emphasis added). 2) concluding the account was a convenience account rather than a - 13 - itf account was the only known conduit from the u.s. treasury department divided in fair shares, close this account. accounts – if your dad said, hey, rose, look, i’d like you to n.t., 5/12/2011 at 143. paid shall be by the estate also all taxes shall be 3 our standard of review of an orphans’ court’s decision is account with first national bank of pennsylvania, at the of regan and phillips. enter a photocopy of the decedent’s june 6, 2003 will. regan and phillips an equalized distribution, and if [decedent] decided that everything that was : account or deposit agreement expressly provide for survivorship a final order.” pa. o.c. rules 7.1(g). “individual” even though there is an option of “totten trust (itf)” in the clarified that regan was the declarant of the statement.23 following the directives of the binder, deposited all proceeds of assets and when on january 14, 2009, strahsmeier presented for filing the death of any beneficiary thereafter unless the terms of the although decedent prepared a codicil to the will dated march 20, 2007, it (b) trust account.--at the death of the trustee or the survivor determines the credibility of the witnesses and, on review, we decedent. both of these accounts were revised on september 8, 2008, five j-a09043-12 j-a09043-12 j-a09043-12 probate averring they did not know if a valid will was in existence.9 death of the depositor.” in re rodger's estate, 97 a.2d 789, 790 (pa. joint account is not supportable under a plain reading of the mpaa or determined the funds from treasury bill *h20 were an 14 because of an unpaid loan to regan made by decedent during his life, she withdrew the contents of that account, totaling $140,200.26. further, mr. gates testified that sometime after regan’s name had parties as trustee for one or more beneficiaries where the we examine the final two issues together.16 meeting shall be set with ed conley cpa to distribute an abuse of discretion is not merely an error of judgment; if, in 20 changed to “joint with right of survivorship (not as tenants in common).” on decision if all three co-executors are unable to agree; it does not mean, phillips withdrew the caveat. pursuant to the june 6, 2003 will, survivorship at the time he revised the itf account to include regan’s name. trust;14 containing detailed descriptions and information as to his funeral, burial, findings of fact,15 as indication that the itf account’s ownership designation as to 3) the binder prepared by decedent; 4) the post-death actions of citations and quotations omitted). opinion, july 1, 2011, at 3-4 ¶6. this issue was not appealed. to regan, phillips, strahsmeier, and c. donald gates, jr., esquire.7 - 10 - on appeal, regan and phillips contend the orphans' court erred as a j-a09043-12 additionally, decedent specified that the children were to work including the checking account (*390) which was held jointly with pennsylvania should pass to his estate, rather that [sic] the designated beneficiary, i.e., appellant, rose m. regan? regan and phillips refer to the account as a totten trust. “a [t]otten trust binders were updated regularly by decedent. : §6301, et. seq., that the monies held in the totten trust orphans’ court second memorandum opinion and order, 7/25/2011 at 4. checking account and [itf account] each of your names are on time of his death on september 13, 2008, should pass to his affirm on the grounds relied upon by the trial court.” nationwide mut. ins. 23 been placed on the itf account, at his suggestion decedent confirmed with 1 “individual” after the revisions were made. account no. *064. rebut the strong statutory presumption as set forth in the 12 estate rather than the designated beneficiary, [regan]?” power of attorney (“poa”). [regan]: he left the account in my name, so i did not have to – signature cards for the itf account, which are a part of the record show argument were considered by this court. first national that regan’s son, his grandson, was not named on the itf (pay on death)[.] account was again revised on september 8, 2008 when regan was added to - 14 - the binder directs that upon his death, strahsmeier, regan, and november 6, 1985. probate. n.t., 3/10/2011 at 18. j-a09043-12 legal error and the court’s factual findings are supported by the evidence of a contrary intent on the part of the decedent to monies from insurances, annuitys [sic], home sale, id. at 35 (emphasis in the original). the binder instructs strahsmeier: trustee or last surviving trustee, unless there is clear and id. (emphasis in original). itf account not be the sole property of regan after his death: 1) the the court: i’m not asking you that so much. pointedly but order affirmed. matured treasury bill. because the u.s. treasury department was not bank of pennsylvania (“first national”). decedent was the sole owner of this mentioned in the deposit agreement. a trust account does not “as an appellate court, we may uphold a decision of the trial court if there matter of law in: 1) concluding strahsmeier produced clear and convincing j-a09043-12 motion to strike the brief of appellee strahsmeier and/or request that another regardless of previous disagreements, also that you herein, the treasury bill and the itf account. mr. gates testified opinion by ott, j.: filed: september 7, 2012 designation at all times of the itf account as an “individual” owned account; on may 12, 2010, the orphans' court directed regan and phillips12 facts. - 12 - survivorship (not as tenants in common)” account. clearly, decedent was the court relied are palpably wrong or clearly inapplicable, we however, a time stamped copy of the petition and the grant of letters of funds into it after the house is sold close it. talking about was just nickels and dimes, and [strahsmeier] had this petition is not contained in the original record or listed on the docket. would, after payment of debts, be divided equally among the children.8 ownership designation on both revised signature cards remained marked as in re estate of cella, 12 a.3d 374, 378 (pa. super. 2010) (internal [regan’s $20,000] and to pay all my taxes owed up to the the march 3, 2011 deposition testimony of mr. gates was made a part of cause why respondents should not be directed to deliver the decedent’s the only assets not placed into the estate account are the two at issue to the decedent. the orphans' court correctly found the $40,000 belonged 19 § 6301-6306, supra., we need not analyze whether the itf account is a most important to me is that all of you act civil towards one block. j-a09043-12 “legal title to all personal estate of a decedent shall pass at his death a typed “x” next to “individual.” strahsmeier exhibit 9, 5/12/2011. the reached maturity it was deposited to the account of record, the itf account. there type of ownership was not designated in this revision. of two or more trustees, any sum remaining on deposit belongs exists simply when a court determines that the provisions of a pre-existing right of survivorship (not as tenants in common) into the estate account. as “itf” (hereinafter “itf account”).4 will not reverse its credibility determinations absent an abuse of totten trust. the issue herein is not the type of account, but whether there to the estate. because regan has no right to the monies, they must be check. this acct is to be the major estate acct all totten trust; and 3) concluding the treasury bill (*h20) which matured on executors cannot all agree, then john t. strahsmeier’s decision will prevail. 18 j-a09043-12 consideration of the submissions by the parties, official record, and relevant intention. on october 6, 2008, strahsmeier presented to the court a petition to b. did the trial court err, as a matter of law, in concluding that the totten trust account held with first national bank of immediately confronted him, like, two tigers attacking a cub, and immediately filed a caveat with the register of wills. phillips were to take the monies from the accounts they shared with court found mr. gates’ testimony to be credible.21 decree or adjudication. a party may not file a motion for reconsideration of in may 2007, decedent prepared binders (hereinafter “the binder”) earn you substantial money. the record also reflects the following exchange between judge o’toole appeal of: co-executrices, rose certificate of deposit no. *900. the account. the ownership block shows it is a “joint with right of and owned by decedent alone. the estate was the successor owner of the as of october 2006, the account form was marked “john strahsmeier itf 17 j-a09043-12 we’ll go ahead and do it just like dad wanted us to do.” bill *h20 ($40,000) as assets of the estate. court has held that the: “conclusion that such clear and convincing evidence j-a09043-12 regan and should you start to run low [in paying utility bills and include a regular trust account under a testamentary trust or a on february 17, 2012, appellants regan and phillips filed a motion to in providing information they might need. regan and phillips filed, on june that “if you just admit you took the money and put it back, then we do not have merely the will as the expression of decedent’s intent. the [itf account] before you start moving the various law, we affirm.1 estate taxes except the defered [sic] taxes for the h- [strahsmeier] was antagonistic towards them. there was a lot the [strahsmeier] had produced clear and convincing orphans’ court division at no(s): no. 02-08-6114 the day after the funeral open a [sic] estate checking account strike the brief of appellee strahsmeier and/or request that strahsmeier be followed your dad’s instructions? dad? at various times, other accounts a.3d 374 (pa. super. 2010) which address section 6304(a). our supreme “you”, meaning all of them. id. as co-administrators, filed a petition to show cause why strahsmeier and his deferential. when reviewing a decree entered by the orphans’ in the court of common pleas of allegheny county, - 5 - 2012 pa super 189 - 8 - an amended account was filed on december 20, 2010. after further unequivocally that decedent’s estate plan was to have all of his assets the court: . . . [i]f your dad had given you some instruction, decedent died on september 13, 2008, survived by his three children, all of the children were aware of the decedent’s intent for the otherwise.” in re novosielski, 992 a.2d 89, 102 (pa. 2010). we recognize on june 23, 2009, philips filed an inheritance tax form on behalf of attorney-client. on december 3, 2010, regan and phillips filed an amended inventory. n.t., 3/10/2011 at 20. when asked what this statement was in reference to trust for” and we presume that the bank intended this account to be defined “it was [regan] who made that statement.” id. at first national . . . . the honorable lawrence j. o’toole filed his memorandum opinion and order [regan]: no. following decedent’s death, regan and phillips sought intestate revisions were made on october 17, 2006 and september 8, 2008. id. coming bills from the money market checking acct [itf account].” pa.c.s. § 301(a). it is not in dispute that treasury bill *h20 was registered pennsylvania multi-party account act (mpaa) 20 pa. c.s. those stating that the itf account ($108,477.75) and treasury bill *h20 (internal quotations omitted). directs the children to leave the account open to generate further income for the multiple party accounts act (mpaa), 20 pa.c.s. §§ 6301-6306, rose regan.” strahsmeier exhibit 9, 5/12/2012. although first national j-a09043-12 [itf account] receives monthly alleg. county pension decedent; and 5) regan’s statements showing her knowledge of decedent’s ownership of the balance of the itf account upon his death. the orphans' a motion for stay was filed and denied. contemporaneously they also 11 was to receive $20,000 less from the balance of the checking account (*390) was opened in 1969.19 - 9 - the binders were given quotation marks omitted). by 20 pa.c.s. § 6301, supra. exists clear and convincing evidence that decedent had an intent contrary to a.2d 1093, 1096 (pa. 1993)). 13 the itf account was opened on february 13, 2006 by decedent in his decedent established a money market checking account3 evidence that decedent had an intent contrary to regan’s right of this record contains the following in support of decedent’s intent that the name alone. the box entitled “ownership of account - consumer” contains one handwritten sheet appears to say, “1959”. on october 16, 2008, treasury bill *h20 matured and $40,000 was j-a09043-12 convincing evidence of a contrary intent; if two or more prohibited from engaging in oral argument. strahsmeier’s brief and before: donohue, lazarus and ott, jj. (*194), and a certificate of deposit (“cd account”). the cd account and the : although the specific revisions are not noted, the account holders as of deposit agreement with the financial institution and there is no drawn from those facts.” id. (quoting commonwealth v. pickron, 634 - 11 - asset of the estate. “we are bound by the lower court's findings of fact if ‘majority rules’, as was posited by [regan] and [phillips]”. trial court of the estate from september 24, 2008 until january 14, 2009. refrain from any law suites [sic] against the estate or one phillips on june 23, 2009. in the filing, phillips lists both the itf account account. on october 17, 2006, decedent revised ownership, listing regan notified in a timely manner of decedent’s death, when treasury bill *h20 j-a09043-12 file an account for the estate. strahsmeier was required to cooperate fully transfer it to this acct being i have my own money in decedent executed his will on june 6, 2003. on february 13, 2006, the estate and not regan. on december 22, original june 6, 2003 will and the march 20, 2007 codicil,11 novosielski estate, 992 a.2d 89 (pa. 2010) and in re estate of cella, 12 filed a motion for reconsideration which was denied. “exceptions shall be j-a09043-12 brief of regan and phillips, at 4. change. letters the estate on september 24, 2008. on october 3, 2008 regan and phillips, at 9. he also stated, “[decedent’s] whole estate plan was predicated upon convenience account and therefore, all funds on deposit in entered on july 25, 2011 in the court of common pleas of allegheny county, phillips and strahsmeier regarding bank accounts they each held with 5 become the estate account. the totten trust account established by the decedent, john 6 extraordinary in its detail as to the decedent’s intent. the binder states: the 15 in that [itf account], was going to go to [regan], it would have skewed the deposit box pursuant to his powers as co-agent under the may 15, 2004 accordingly, we affirm the orphans' court’s dismissal of the exceptions co. v. fleming, 924 a.2d 1259, 1269 (pa. super. 2007). itf account would not become the sole property of regan, as it in fact different from those relied upon by the orphans’ court.17 a. did the trial court commit an error of law in concluding that “trust account” means an account in the name of one or more of administration were issued to regan and phillips as co-administrators of aware of the different options and the choice for each account reflected his to his personal representative, if any, as of the date of his death.” 20 is, would you follow his instructions because he was your 22 equal funds less amounts previously borrowed 9 regan’s right of survivorship in the itf account. because the parties do not dispute the applicability of the mpaa, 20 pa.c.s. july 28, 2008, decedent revised the account to add strahsmeier.20 objections as well as supplemental objections to both the account and and the $40,000 treasury bill as assets of the estate. this form was filed after regan’s may 20, 2009 withdrawal of all funds from the itf account. because regan had no right to the monies in the itf account, they must be subject of the trust other than the sum on deposit in the type of matters. october 17, 2006 are decedent and “itf rose regan.” the itf account esquire;18 funeral meal, all home utilities grass cutting etc. a j-a09043-12 the orphans' court was correct in determining that strahsmeier, as co- all accused him of stealing this money. apparently, what they were contained regan’s name, it did not change the nature of the money. the ($40,000) were not listed as assets of the estate. a prolonged and a checking account, no. *390; a savings account, no. *194; and a the precedent established by these cases; however, this case requires day of my death, the following utilities and expenses pennsylvania 2 john t. strahsmeier, regan and phillips (collectively “children”).2 - 15 - we must decide whether the mpaa because co-executor strahsmeier proved by clear and convincing bonds to be paid by the estate. after all is paid and on july 1, 2011. regan and phillips filed timely exceptions to the order.13 strahsmeier, phillips, and regan were appointed co-executors of the estate. deposited and all defered [sic] taxes (h-bonds) after inventory on july 27, 2010. among the objections to the inventory were cards of three other first national accounts: a checking (*390), a savings 20 pa.c.s. § 6301. contentious period of discovery followed. manifestly unreasonable or the product of partiality, prejudice, executor, proved by clear and convincing evidence that decedent, when he do this and this and i’m going to put it in writing, here it - 2 - allows the depositor to retain . . . complete control of the fund during his life 8 - 3 - binder, 5/3/2007 at 1 (emphasis in original). this further evidences that the appeal from the order entered july 25, 2011 bias or ill will, discretion has been abused. this matter as follows: - 16 - can always take money from the [itf account] and 2) the testimony of decedent’s long-time lawyer, c. donald gates, and regan: or a fiduciary account arising from a fiduciary relation such as however, we are not constrained to give the same deference to is any proper basis for the result reached; thus we are not constrained to one of these accounts whereby i can draw monies from the estate account than strahsmeier and phillips. 15, 2010, a first and final account and inventory. strahsmeier filed assets to custody of the court, 10/3/2008. put my saving [sic] account and checking in it if possible leave so when [strahsmeier] came in, [regan and phillips] m. regan and lois a. phillips on july 25, 2011, judge o’toole issued his second memorandum - 6 - another, being this will cost each of you time off from your shortly after decedent’s death. he testified: owned by decedent were opened and revised at first national.5 or the judgment exercised is shown by the record to be ... never defines “itf”, common usage delineates it as the abbreviation “in decedent’s spouse, rose marie strahsmeier, predeceased him on j. strahsmeier, on october 17, 2006, some 23 months prior mr. gates testified to his knowledge of decedent’s intent regarding we first address the issue of the treasury bill. the trial court, in its itf account containing the majority of the assets of the estate was to regan had knowledge of decedent’s intent regarding the itf account. “gathered, liquidated and divided into three equal shares.” n.t., 3/10/2011 orphans’ court memorandum opinion and order, 7/1/2011 at 3 ¶(1). the ownership designation on both accounts remained marked as 10 the trial court found “[strahsmeier] has the authority to make the final the money market [itf account] as is being the interest rate will opinion and order, which dismissed the exceptions. this timely appeal the exclusive procedure for review by the orphans' court of a final order, the court: you would not? account. after the house is sold and all monies are evidence. because the orphans’ court sits as the fact-finder, it citation against john t. strahsmeier and sandra k. strahsmeier to show beneficiaries survive, there is no right of survivorship in event of trust agreement which has significance apart from the account, administration are dated september 24, 2008. see exhibit a to petition for 7 school and county taxes out of checking account (*390)] you : no. 1286 wda 2011 : is not relevant for purposes herein. the codicil directs where the three j-a09043-12 distribution of his estate. the record shows strahsmeier and phillips, auto sale, others, shall be deposited into this of antagonism in the room. [phillips] and – [regan] had said 16 survivorship. we affirm the ruling on these issues, albeit on grounds and yet secure to the beneficiary any balance standing in the account at the the estate. the tax form listed the itf account ($108,477.75) and treasury provides in relevant part: account; it is not essential that payment to the beneficiary be savings account (*194) were both originally opened and owned solely by the parties and the orphans' court relied upon the holdings in in re electronically deposited into the itf account. shortly thereafter, regan 21 we have reviewed the decedent’s binder, which we note is together to “collect all outstanding monies and pay all forth the original record by stipulation of the parties. n.t., 5/12/2011 at 149. 4 [regan]: i guess if it would make sense at the time, but things : created the itf account had an intent contrary to regan’s presumed right of “individual” was not an oversight, the record also contains the signature in re: estate of john j. returned to the estate as directed by the orphans' court. this issue fails. court, this court must determine whether the record is free from wife should not be directed to deliver decedent’s assets to the court.10 decedent’s long-time counsel and scrivener of the will and codicil. additionally, the record contains the inheritance tax form filed by to his death on september 13, 2008, was merely a assets, debts, accounts, and estate management.6 procedural posturing and filings, a hearing was finally held on may 12, 2011. relationship is established by the form of the account and the evidence to overcome the presumption the bank account was a totten october 16, 2008, in the principal amount of $40,000, was the property of - 7 - the order was so directed because they had served as co-administrators money, threw it on the table and said, “you figure it out.” that to be the regan money.” id. at 18. even though the proceeds were deposited in the itf account which accounts22 that discretion. binder, 5/3/2007 at 38 (emphasis in original). it also states: whole estate plan in [regan’s] favor.” id. at 17. followed on august 9, 2011. strahsmeier exhibit 9, 5/12/2012. 1993, phillips was added to this account and the ownership section was mr. gates testified to witnessing a contentious meeting between the children days before decedent died, to add children as agents pursuant to the poa. to the person or persons named as beneficiaries, if surviving, or the sisters alleged strahsmeier had removed assets from decedent’s safe strahsmeier, deceased in the superior court of the record supports overriding the distribution scheme enunciated in place of employment and legal fees are very expensive in these any resulting legal conclusions. where the rules of law on which 1953), quoting in re scanlon's estate, 169 a. 106, 108 (pa. 1933) will indicate a distribution scheme in conflict with one under a co-existing the estate of john j. strahsmeier (“estate”) appeal from the order of court intent. whether it’s a binder, orally or whatever, would you have account because it “would be indicative of the fact that [decedent] intended mr. gates testified: “the division of the [itf account]. id. mr. gates then decedent and deposit them into an estate account. the estate account orphans' court division, which denied their motions for reconsideration and will reverse the court's decree. interpretation of section 6304(b) and contains distinguishable and unique accounts but you are not eligible. all are covered under p.o.d. stay and dismissed their exceptions to the july 1, 2011 order. after careful they are supported in the record, but we must examine any legal conclusions to the survivor or survivors of them if one or more die before the the strahsmeier be prohibited from engaging in oral argument denied. first national bank there are three accounts, savings account, we summarize the long and tortuous factual and procedural history of in re smith, 890 a.2d 1082, 1086 (pa. super. 2006) (citations and internal reaching a conclusion, the court overrides or misapplies the law,

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