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Many people tell me that someone else is “on” their bank account. I have to ask them what this means. Is the person just a convenience signer with no right to the money? Is the person a joint signer with a right to withdraw all the money now and half of it after they die? Is the person a joint signer with right of survivorship with the right to withdraw all the money now and all of it after they die?

Most people don’t know. I tell them to get a copy of the signature card from their bank or credit union.

Once we know, we can talk about whether this is really what they want.

Is joint with right of survivorship what you want?

You may want your spouse in a long-term marriage to be “on” the bank account joint with right of survivorship. But what if you are in a shaky marriage? Or if, after you suffer a terrible accident or life-sapping disease, your spouse decides to protect himself by getting out? People’s intentions change.

But do you really want to risk all your money disappearing if your child is in an accident, sees their business or their marriage go south or, with all good intentions, “borrows” and is unable to pay you back when you need the money?

People sometimes hold a bank account jointly with one child and trust that child to split the money with siblings after they are gone. That doesn’t necessarily happen. Suspicion that it may not happen or may not have happened fairly can poison relationships.

Second marriages pose another danger. When one spouse becomes ill, their child, acting under a power of attorney, can drain the account to pay for their care. Or the other spouse’s child, acting under a power of attorney from their parent, can drain the account to prevent their parent’s funds from being used. Financial “divorce by child” is all too common.

It may make more sense to have two accounts: one for paying ordinary bills, mostly through automatic withdrawal, and another which requires someone to prove that they are your successor trustee in a Revocable Living Trust or agent under a Durable [Financial] Power of Attorney to access the money. It might even be a good idea to have co-trustees or co-agents who must act together.

If you want money in the account to pass outside of probate and to be immediately available on your death (for example, to pay for final expenses), it may make more sense to name someone to whom it should pass pay on death (POD).


Elder law attorney, Terry Garrett, is a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is an Approved Guardianship Attorney. She assists people in elder law, estate and special needs planning, guardianship and settling estates. She graduated with honors from Cornell University. She was on the Dean’s List at Wharton Business School. She earned her J.D. at Columbia Law School, receiving the Parker Award and a Mellon Fellowship.

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