Law School Case Brief
Varela v. Bernachea - 917 So. 2d 295 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2005)
When a joint bank account is established with the funds of one person, a gift of the funds is presumed. This presumption may be rebutted only by clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.
Cristina Varela and Carlos Alberto Bernachea, a former practicing lawyer, developed a romantic relationship and traveled the world together. Bernachea paid all of Varela’s expenses and showered her with expensive gifts. He also added her as a joint tenant with a right of survivorship to a certain account. Varela received a Visa check card for the account, which she freely used. After Bernachea had a heart attack, his daughters barred Varela from both his hospital room and his condominium. Varlea wrote a $280,000 check on the joint account and deposited it in her own name in a newly opened personal account. Bernachea subsequently sued the Varela and the bank to settle the ownership status of their account. The Circuit Court entered a judgment for Bernachea, holding that Bernachea was the sole account owner because he lacked donative intent when added Varela as a joint account owner. Varela appealed.
Was Bernachea the sole account owner of the bank account in question?
The state appellate court held that when a joint bank account was established with the funds of one person, a gift of the funds was presumed. The presumption may be rebutted only by clear and convincing evidence to the contrary. The trial court erroneously found, in the absence of clear and convincing evidence, that Bernachea rebutted Varela’s gift presumption. The appellate court found that the only evidence in support of Bernachea’s claim that he lacked donative intent was his own dubious testimony, claiming he misapprehended the significance of a joint tenancy, and only intended for Varela to possess "restricted" account access. However, Bernachea did not rebut Varela’s gift presumption when he openly admitted that he gave Varela access to their joint account via check card. As such, the appellate court reversed the judgment of the trial court, and the case was remanded for further proceedings.
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