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Mueller v. Edwards

Court of Appeals of Wisconsin, District II

October 25, 2017

Todd Mueller, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Thomas Edwards and Martina Welke, Defendants-Respondents.

         Recommended for publication in the official reports.

         APPEAL from an order of the circuit court for Winnebago County No. 2015CV727: DANIEL J. BISSETT, Judge. Affirmed.

          Before Neubauer, C.J., Reilly, P.J., and Gundrum, J.

          REILLY, P.J.

         ¶1 This case addresses whether a beneficiary designation on a "P.O.D. account" under WIS. STAT. ch. 705 (2015-16)[1] may be controlled by a writing separate from the contract of deposit between a depositor and his or her financial institution. Todd Mueller alleges that a handwritten note made by Robert Zernzach (depositor) sometime after Zernzach had entered into a P.O.D. account with U.S. Bank (financial institution) resulted in Mueller being the sole beneficiary upon Zernzach's death. We affirm the circuit court's finding that the beneficiaries stated in the records of the bank were the lawful owners of the proceeds as Zernzach and U.S. Bank never amended the P.O.D. account to change the beneficiary to Mueller.


         ¶2 On November 18, 2013, Zernzach and U.S. Bank created a P.O.D. account in which Zernzach deposited $200, 000 into a certificate of deposit (CD) naming Martina Welke and Thomas Edwards as P.O.D. beneficiaries. Upon opening a P.O.D. account, a depositor designates the beneficiary(ies) who the bank is directed to pay the proceeds to upon the death of the depositor. "Prior to the depositor's death, the depositor maintains control over the principal and income of the accounts and can change the P.O.D. recipient at any time." Estate of Sheppard v. Schleis, 2010 WI 32, ¶24, 324 Wis.2d 41, 782 N.W.2d 85; see also WIS. Stat. § 705.03(2). Zernzach designated Welke and Edwards as the P.O.D. beneficiaries on the account via a signature card held by U.S. Bank. Zernzach and U.S. Bank never changed the beneficiary designation.[2] Zernzach died unexpectedly on June 21, 2015.

         ¶3 Mueller, a neighbor and friend of Zernzach, claims that on March 6, 2015, Zernzach changed the beneficiary designation on the account by naming Mueller as sole beneficiary in a handwritten note (Exhibit 8) that Mueller found in Zernzach's safe after Zernzach's death. Exhibit 8 lists seven financial institutions with the type of account, amount of the account, and the purported beneficiary of the account. Six of the seven accounts list Mueller as the beneficiary. The document indicates that "[t]hese are all P.O.D. accounts" and "[t]hese accounts are recorded on all the P.O.D. documents at the banks and credit unions." Zernzach never filed or provided Exhibit 8 to U.S. Bank during his lifetime.[3]

         ¶4 The circuit court, following a trial, found that Welke and Edwards were the owners of the proceeds from the P.O.D. account. Mueller appeals.


         ¶5 The sole issue is whether Exhibit 8 operated to change the beneficiary designation on Zernzach's P.O.D. account at U.S. Bank. This issue presents a question of statutory interpretation. Statutory interpretation is a question of law, which we review de novo. Seider v. O'Connell, 2000 WI 76, ¶26, 236 Wis.2d 211, 612 N.W.2d 659. "Statutory language is given its common, ordinary, and accepted meaning, " but context and structure of the surrounding language are also important considerations "to avoid absurd or unreasonable results." State ex rel Kalal v. Circuit Court for Dane Cty., 2004 WI 58, ¶¶45-46, 271 Wis.2d 633, 681 N.W.2d 110.

         ¶6 Mueller argues Exhibit 8 is a valid P.O.D. beneficiary designation as it meets the requirements under WIS. STAT. §§ 705.01(9) and 705.10, even though "it is surprising and unconventional." We disagree.

         ¶7 WISCONSIN Stat. ch. 705 details the procedures required to create a "P.O.D. account." WISCONSIN STAT. § 705.01(1) defines an account as "a contract of deposit of funds between a depositor and a financial institution" and expressly includes a certificate of deposit. A P.O.D. account is an account "where the relationship is established by the form of the account and the deposit agreement with the financial institution." Sec. 705.01(8). A P.O.D. beneficiary is "a person designated on a P.O.D. account as one to whom all or part of the account is payable on request after the death of one or more parties." Sec. 705.01(9).

         ¶8 Applying the plain meaning of the language utilized by the legislature in WIS. STAT. § 705.01, we conclude that a P.O.D. beneficiary designation is a contract made between a "financial institution" and a "depositor" in which the depositor and financial institution agree that a P.O.D. beneficiary is "a person designated on a P.O.D. account.'" See § 705.01(8), (9) (emphasis added); see also WIS. STAT. ยง 705.02 (describing the procedure necessary to create multiple-party accounts). A P.O.D. beneficiary must be named in the account records of the financial institution such that the financial institution can adhere to its contract to pay the depositor's funds to the beneficiary as it was directed upon the ...

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