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It is incredibly common for people to own a bank account of some type at their death.

The ways in which bank accounts are distributed or transferred after a death depends on what type of account it is. There are several different types of accounts and some may not require a formal estate in order to be distributed.

Payable on Death (POD)

Payable on death designations allow beneficiaries to receive a decedent’s assets without going through the probate process. In other words, the funds in the account will be paid directly to the beneficiary without the need to pass through an estate. This designation can be applied to checking and savings accounts, security deposits, savings bonds, and other deposit certificates. Accounts with named payable on death beneficiaries can be accessed when the named beneficiary provides the bank with a certified copy of the death certificate and proper identification. The named beneficiary is not entitled to any of the money during the lifetime of the account holder.

It is important to note that a payable on death designation supersedes a Last Will and Testament. For example, if an account lists one person as the beneficiary, but the Will lists a different person as the beneficiary of property, the payable on death designation prevails.

It is also worth noting that, unlike a Will, it would be unusual to be able to name alternate beneficiaries to a payable on death account. This means that if the named beneficiary dies before you, the account funds likely will need to be distributed through probate to the appropriate heirs.

Individual Accounts

If the account is owned solely and no beneficiary is named, there is no other way to access it without going through the Court. Depending on a number of factors, including the existence or non-existence of a Will, the beneficiaries’ identities, the other assets in the estate, and the amount of funds in the account, there are a number of options to consider in deciding what type of estate you will use.  There are expedited methods available in many cases to take a shorter path with fewer costs in recovering the contents of the bank account.

Joint Accounts

Accounts owned jointly with someone else routinely are labeled as “right of survivorship,” meaning the surviving co-owner will become the sole owner upon a death. This is one of the most common ways in which married couples title their accounts since each party desires to jointly own the contents of the account.  In this case, an estate would not be needed in order to transfer funds. A death certificate will need to be provided to the bank in order for them to make the necessary changes to the names on the account.

If the account is not labeled as “right of survivorship,” the account is simply a shared account and is owned by the holders in proportion to the amount they contributed to the account. When one of the account holders dies, their ownership will pass to the appropriate heirs. The surviving co-owner of the account does not have a legal right to the decedent’s portion of the account but does still have access to their portion of the account.  This can be a conundrum since the court may require you to report the entire contents as a probate asset unless you can trace the ownership interest of each joint owner.

Tips

  • During the estate planning process, it is worth considering whether joint bank accounts with a right of survivorship or POD accounts with designated beneficiaries may be an appropriate tool to employ to allow an expeditious transfer of assets when you die to limit court involvement.
  • Be knowledgeable on the different types of accounts and know how your specific accounts are set up.
  • Maintain copies of signature cards and account information among your important papers to ensure these accounts are reported correctly.  It is not unusual for banks to lose this information, so having a copy will ensure assets do not end up in probate when they are not supposed to be there.
  • Trusts can also be set up for bank accounts to be part of upon death. In a trust, a trustee will be appointed to distribute the funds, eliminating the need for Court interference. Other personal and real property can also be added to a trust.

Estate Administration Guide