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Use Caution With Joint Accounts

August 27th, 2010

In the field of Elder Law, we run into a lot of competing concerns when assisting clients. Questions arise regarding proper estate planning as well as how to deal with aging and illness. Any of us who have experienced living with a progressive illness ourselves, or for a spouse or family member, understand the day-to-day issues that arise.

One easy fix can be to add a child or trusted friend as a joint account holder on our checking accounts. It can be difficult to address doctor’s visits, treatments, hospital stays, and the like while also remembering to pay the bills or to find time to pick up the groceries.  So we put a loved one’s name on our account to have them assist with these tasks.

Many people think that, since they added the other person for the sake of convenience that they have full control and, upon death, the account will go through their estate just like other assets. The bank (and the law) tend to think otherwise. A joint account is just that: a joint asset. Immediately upon adding the name of your child, sibling, or friend to your bank account, they own the account just as much as you do. That person can add money or, worse, take out money to his or her heart’s content. And the bank will not ask any questions.

Perhaps worse yet, upon your death this individual will automatically own 100% of the account to the exclusion of all other heirs. If you have multiple children and one is on your account with you, that child will take the account alone.

Be careful with your joint accounts. Only upon clear evidence of an intent that the person be added merely for convenience and not as a true joint owner can your estate prove that the account should be distributed as part of your will. By the time that evidence is shown, the damage may already be done.  If you have concerns, get more information from a trusted elder law attorney.

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