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Sadofski v. Williams

Decided: April 24, 1972.


For affirmance -- Chief Justice Weintraub and Justices Jacobs, Proctor, Hall, Schettino and Mountain. For reversal -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Hall, J.


This litigation arises out of an unfortunate quarrel among the children of the decedent Katherine Baron over the amounts of two savings accounts and two certificates of deposit. These amounts, all belonging originally to Mrs. Baron, stood just prior to her death, intestate, in her name and that of appellant Janet B. Williams, her oldest child, as "joint tenants with right of survivorship and not as tenants in common." Literally minutes before Mrs. Baron's demise, the amounts on deposit, totalling some $45,000 and representing all of her property, were withdrawn by Mrs. Williams. She asserted she did this on her mother's instructions and claimed the entire sum to the exclusion of the other members of the family.

This suit was brought by the administratrix of Mrs. Baron's estate, another of her daughters, to recover the moneys for distribution as intestate property on equitable grounds, including breach of trust.*fn1 The Chancery Division held that Mrs. Williams did not establish a sole right thereto and so ordered that all the moneys be paid over to the administratrix.*fn2 The Appellate Division affirmed in an unreported opinion and we granted certification on Mrs. Williams' petition. 58 N.J. 597 (1971).

The determination below rested primarily not on resolution of conflicting proofs, but rather on factual and legal conclusions reached upon consideration and weighing of evidence

substantially non-contradictory in its important aspects.

Mrs. Baron and her husband had emigrated from Poland and for many years operated a small produce farm in East Brunswick Township. She was a woman of very limited education and apparently could not read or write beyond signing her name. She understood English and spoke it somewhat brokenly. At the time of her death on July 12, 1968, she was 76 years of age. Six children had been born to the couple, five daughters and a son. The girls each married and left home. Mrs. Williams did not marry until she was 35. Until that time she lived at home, although working elsewhere; she turned over her pay to her parents and assisted them in handling their small business affairs. The son, sometime after his marriage, purchased his own farm in Cranbury and the father and mother then apparently gave up farming and came to live with him. Their farm wa allowed to lie fallow. The father died intestate in 1963 and seemingly all of his assets passed to his widow by virtue of joint ownership. She continued to live with her son. The son died in early February 1967, leaving a wife and two minor children. Thereafter, until a month or so before her death, Mrs. Baron still resided in the son's home with her daughter-in-law. Later in February she sold part of the original farm, including the buildings, to her daughter, Elizabeth C. Noebels, for $20,000. (It was with Mrs. Noebels that she went to live shortly before her death.)

At the time of the father's death he and his wife had a joint savings account in the First National Bank of Cranbury which passed to Mrs. Baron by survivorship. On March 1, 1967, the balance was a little more than $8,000. On that date, she asked Mrs. Williams to go with her to the bank. $6,000, part of the Noebels' land purchase proceeds, was deposited in this account and the $14,000 remainder of that sum in a new account designated "special." (Apparently the purpose of opening the second account was to assure maximum federal deposit insurance protection,

then limited to $15,000 per account.) After consultation with a junior bank officer, the new account was opened in the names of, and the name on the first account was changed to, Mrs. Baron or Janet B. Williams "as joint tenants with right of survivorship and not as tenants in common."

Mrs. Williams testified that her mother told her and the officer in the bank that "she wanted the account in both names and specify that no one is to withdraw any money, only she's to handle the account, put in money and take it out but my name was to be on it in case anything should happen to her." The latter phrase was characterized by the witness as meaning to her "if she had gotten sick or something." These instructions were repeated by Mrs. Baron to Mrs. Williams as they were leaving the bank, coupled, as the witness said, with the statement that "if anything happened to my mother, [she] wanted me to have the money." She also claims her mother made the same statement to her on later occasions. Mrs. Williams was clear that her mother did not say to the bank officer that she wanted Mrs. Williams to get and keep the money in the event of her death. In fact, there is no testimony in the case that Mrs. Baron ever expressly said to Mrs. Williams that the latter was to keep the money to the exclusion of the other children upon her death, nor is there anything which directly casts light on what Mrs. Baron intended by the expression that she wanted Mrs. Williams "to have the money." Rather Mrs. Williams said her mother never told her exactly what to do with the money "if anything should happen to her."

The bank officer's testimony as to what transpired on March 1, 1967 and why the highly legalistic format of the accounts was utilized was ambiguous and not helpful. It largely went to a general course of conduct that the instructions of a depositor are followed and the names and characterization of the account placed thereon as requested. She said she could not recollect the specific conversation that was had, but that Mrs. Baron wished to add her daughter's name on the account and after discussing it with her, "I

added the name of her daughter and entered it the way she requested it." She could give no satisfactory explanation for the use of the joint tenancy-survivorship language (which certainly could not have been suggested by Mrs. Baron or Mrs. Williams) and was very unclear as to whether its meaning was explained or even whether the survivorship aspect was discussed at all. (It seems quite unlikely that either occurred to any extent in the light of Mrs. Williams' testimony detailed above as to what her mother told and did not tell the bank officer; the strong probability is that the bank officer, as a ...

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