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Brokerage account was not estate asset

Where a father and son jointly owned a brokerage account and contractually agreed that if the brokerage received conflicting instructions, both had to agree before the brokerage could act, the father’s other children gained no rights to the account after he died.

Although the father instructed the brokerage to place the account proceeds in a separate account that only he controlled, the brokerage, having received a conflicting instruction, properly exercised its right to insist on signatures from both father and son. The conflict was not resolved when the father died. The son was thus entitled to the funds under his survivorship rights.

Prior proceedings

Appellee and his father owned a joint account with survivorship rights at PNC Investments. The brokerage agreement provided that each could act as a sole owner of the account but if PNC received conflicting instructions regarding the account, both owners needed to agree before PNC could act.

Shortly before his death, the father issued instructions to have the account balance transferred to an account solely in his name. PNC denied the request because it had received “conflicting instructions.” The father died before the conflict was resolved.

Appellants are appellee’s siblings. After the father’s death, appellee claimed the account balance under his survivorship rights. Appellants claimed the proceeds as part of their father’s estate. PNC froze the account and later deposited the proceeds with the court.

The parties filed competing motions for summary judgment. “The circuit court granted Appellee’s motion for partial summary judgment, finding that Appellee was the ‘surviving account holder’ and was therefore ‘entitled as a matter of contract to receive the funds at issue.’ PNC exercised its right to require signatures from both parties to release the funds, and the Joint Account had not been altered at the time of Bass’s [the father’s] death. The circuit court further found that there was ‘no genuine dispute as to the facts.’”

Contract controls

“Appellants contend that the matter involved more than a mere contract claim and that material facts were still in dispute, and thus, the trial court erroneously granted summary judgment. …

“The facts that the Appellants claim to be in dispute – how the Joint Account was funded and whether PNC’s refusal to release the funds to Bass prior to his death affected Appellee’s entitlement to the funds – are not material to the outcome of this case. Thus, in the legal issues presented by the case at bar, the trial court was not premature in granting partial summary judgment. …

“[T]he evidence presented to the circuit court established that, at the time of opening the Joint Account, Bass and Appellee both signed the Application designating the two men as tenants with survivorship rights, meaning that the Joint Account would vest in the surviving owner upon the other’s death.

“Although it appears that Bass may have changed his mind shortly before his death and requested to move the Joint Account funds to another account in only Bass’ name, his reexamination of the status of the Joint Account is of no consequence as only Bass’ intent at the time of the account’s creation is consequential to the outcome of this case.

“Because PNC exercised its right to require signatures from both parties to release the funds, the Joint Account had not been altered at the time of Bass’ death. As correctly determined by the circuit court, Appellee is the rightful owner of the Joint Account funds.”


Helphrey, et al. v. Bass, Record No. 201148 (Unpublished Order) Oct. 21, 2021. Upon an appeal from a judgment rendered by the Circuit Court of Accomack County. VLW 021-6-072, 5 pp.

VLW 021-6-072

Virginia Lawyers Weekly