Note: This Article was originally written and published in January of 2022. It has been updated and republished as of June 2023.
Whenever I meet with a client for the first time, we usually will talk about how their bank accounts are owned and who has access to the client’s bank accounts both during their lifetime and upon their passing. Many times, there is general confusion as to how bank accounts are owned (either jointly or individually) and whether bank accounts have named beneficiaries or not.
Here are four ways you can give someone access to your bank accounts along with the pros and cons of each method.
1. Make Your Bank Account a “Payable on Death” or “POD” Account
You can designate a beneficiary or multiple beneficiaries on your checking, savings, money market or certificate of deposit accounts. When you name a beneficiary for a bank account, that account is now called a “Payable on Death” account or a “POD” account. You work directly with your Bank to name beneficiaries for your Bank accounts.
When a beneficiary is named on a bank account and the account owner dies, then the money in that account will easily transfer to the named beneficiaries. This is a much easier process than having to transfer those bank account funds through the Probate Process.
Most people DO NOT have named beneficiaries for their bank accounts, mostly because people do not know that they CAN name beneficiaries for their Bank Accounts. (For some reason, banks generally don’t educate their customers about this option.)
Pro: The main advantage is easy access after death. By naming beneficiaries on your bank account, this account will now be guaranteed to Avoid Probate, and your beneficiary will have quick access to cash upon your death.
Con: When you name someone as a beneficiary of your bank account they DO NOT have ownership interest or rights to access the account while you are living. If you need them to help you pay bills while you are still living but incapacitated – a POD designation will not help with that.
Warning 1: Each Bank has its own rules, policies, and forms for naming a beneficiary to a Bank account. Some banks will not allow multiple beneficiaries to be named on an account. Some Banks will only allow a "primary" beneficiary to be named and not allow "contingent" beneficiaries to be named on an account.
Warning 2: Many people name one or more of their adult children as beneficiaries of a bank account so their children can use that money to pay for funeral expenses or other expenses of their estate. While it is true that a beneficiary can turn around and use the money to pay bills of your estate, remember this money is now legally “their money” and they could spend it on whatever they choose. You are trusting that your named beneficiary will use the money to pay bills of your estate if this is your intention.
Warning 3: If you intend for your Beneficiary of a bank account to pay the bills of your estate and then divide the rest of the money among your other children, then that money that has been transferred to your Beneficiary via a POD account is “their” money from an IRS perspective.
As of 2023, if your Beneficiary gives more than $17,000 (if not married) or $34,000 (if married) of that money to a single person, that is considered a “gift” from the named beneficiary’s estate to that other person and – the named beneficiary would have to report that “gift” to the IRS for that tax year.
2. Make Someone a “Joint Owner” of your Account
You can make someone a Joint Owner of any of your bank accounts while you are living. Any joint owner of a bank account has complete access and rights to the account while you are living and after your death.
Pro: Full Access during your lifetime and after your passing. This person will have full access to the account while you are living and could use these funds to pay your bills upon your behalf. Upon your death, they continue to have complete access to the account without having to fill out any additional paperwork.
Con: As a joint owner, if this person has creditor issues and/or judgments entered against them, their creditors could access the money in this joint account to pay off the debt owed. Also, as a “joint owner”, this person could take all the money and use it on themselves without paying your bills.
Warning 1: When you make someone a joint owner of a bank account – you are technically “giving” them the money in that account from an IRS perspective. If the amount in the bank account is more than $17,000 (if you are not married) or $34,000 (if you are married) then you may have to report this “gift” to the IRS.
Warning 2: See Warnings 2 and 3 of the Payable on Death Section above – these Warnings apply to Joint Ownership Accounts as well.
3. Power of Attorney For Property
Any formal estate plan should include a signed Power of Attorney for Property Document. This is a document where you name an agent to act on your behalf while you are living to help you with “Property – Related” transactions in the event you become mentally incapacitated or if you just want somebody to help you with your property and finances.
When you name someone as your Power of Attorney, they would be able to access your Bank Accounts to help pay your bills, etc. while you are living – but they DO NOT have any ownership interest of this bank account.
Pro: As your Power of Attorney for Property – someone can access your Bank accounts while you are living by showing the bank a copy of your signed POA-Property.
Con: A Power of Attorney for Property is only effective during your lifetime – once you pass away the POA -Property is automatically terminated.
Con: A Power of Attorney for Property does not transfer any Bank assets upon someone’s passing. Those Assets can only be transferred upon death if it was a POD account with a named beneficiary or otherwise
4. Check Writing Privileges
Banks allow you to designate someone to be a “signor” on your account. That means that this person can write checks and make withdrawals from your bank account while you are living – without the need of having a signed Power of Attorney for Property Document.
Pro: By having these “Check Writing Privileges” to your bank account – they can help pay bills, etc. on your behalf without needing a signed Power of Attorney Document.
Con: If you give someone “Check Writing Privileges” only to your account they do not automatically inherit this account upon your death. You would still need to name that person as a beneficiary through the Payable on Death Designation.
Warning 1: Check writing privileges are bank account specific. Having check-writing privileges for one account does not automatically apply to all of your accounts. You should still have properly signed Power of Attorney documents to allow someone to access all of your accounts in case of an emergency.
Warning 2: Check writing privileges do not transfer any ownership of this account while you are living. If you want to give someone ownership – you need to make them a joint owner.
Part of good Estate Planning will take into consideration how you allow someone access to your bank accounts in the event of an emergency or upon your death. Understanding the pros and cons of each method of allowing access or ownership to your bank accounts will allow you to make sure you have your bank accounts organized and set up in a way that works WITH your Estate Plan rather than AGAINST it.
This article is a service of Attorney Chad A. Ritchie and the Ritchie Law Office, Ltd.
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