for publication in the official reports.
from an order of the circuit court for Winnebago County No.
2015CV727: DANIEL J. BISSETT, Judge. Affirmed.
Neubauer, C.J., Reilly, P.J., and Gundrum, J.
This case addresses whether a beneficiary designation on a
"P.O.D. account" under WIS. STAT. ch. 705
(2015-16) 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.
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. Zernzach died
unexpectedly on June 21, 2015.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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. § 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 ...