Gataric v. Colak, 2016 IL App (1st) 151281 presents a collection tug of war between a judgment creditor and a third party concerning funds in a joint bank account. The salient issue is what level of proof the third party must meet in order to rebut the presumption that the bank account funds belong not to the third party, but to the judgment debtor.
The plaintiff judgment creditor served a third-party citation on the judgment debtor’s bank who then froze the account. The respondent, a joint account holder, intervened and asserted she was the account’s sole owner and the debtor was only added for “convenience” purposes.
The trial court sided with the plaintiff, and found the respondent failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that she was entitled to all funds in the account and did not intend to gift the joint account funds to the debtor at the time the account was opened. The court granted the creditor’s turnover motion and defendant appealed.
The defendant argued that she was only required to prove her rights to the joint account by a preponderance of evidence – a less exacting burden than the clear and convincing evidence standard applied by the trial court. To meet the preponderance standard, the claimant must prove that her allegations “more likely than not” occurred. The common mathematical description of the preponderance standard is that there is a 51% chance that plaintiff’s version of events happened as opposed to defendant’s.
The third party in Gatarik argued that she alone set up the joint account as a convenience account. She claimed to add the judgment debtor as a joint account holder simply to facilitate the repayment of a short-term loan.
Under Illinois law, joint bank account holders are presumed to have equal access to account funds and a creditor of only one holder can attach the account. The burden shifts to the non-debtor account owner to establish what part of the account belongs to him/her.
When a garnishee (i.e. a bank or bank account holder) answers that a judgment debtor holds money in a joint bank account, this establishes a prima facie case that the money in the account belongs to the judgment debtor. The burden then shifts to the garnishee to prove what part of the funds belong exclusively to him/her.
When deciding who owns joint bank account funds, the court examines: (1) who exercised control of the funds, (2) who made contributions to the account and from what source and in what amount, (3) who paid taxes on the account’s earnings, and (4) the purpose for which the account was established. (¶¶ 19-20)
Here, the trial court found, after hearing live testimony, that the citation respondent didn’t establish by clear and convincing evidence that she was the sole owner of the account funds and that the account was a mere convenience account.
Since the respondent couldn’t show that the trial court misapplied the law or the facts, her appeal failed. As a result, the trial court’s turnover order related to the account funds was upheld.
In situations where two or more people are claiming rights in frozen bank account funds, it is incumbent on the non-debtor to establish by clear and convincing evidence his/her dominant right to the funds.
The clear and convincing evidentiary burden falls midway between preponderance of evidence – the most relaxed burden – and beyond a reasonable doubt – the most severe – on the proof spectrum.