Joint Bank Accounts for Seniors: Yay or Nay?

Many seniors currently need assistance paying their bills and managing their finances, or may need help sometime in the future.  It’s important to have a trustworthy person authorized to manage your finances should you be unable to do so yourself.  Are joint bank accounts a good option?

Here’s a common  scenario

Florence, an 86-year-old widower, decided to have her eldest daughter, Marie, listed on all her bank accounts after her husband’s passing. She needed some help getting to the bank and figured it was easier to have Marie do it for her. Sometimes, Florence needed Marie to help her write out the monthly bills because she was also starting to have memory issues.

Marie took this responsibility very seriously and made weekly trips to the bank for her mother. A few times Marie helped herself to $200 here and there, just to get her through to her next paycheck. She always put it back… except for the last three times. She just can’t seem to get caught up. Maybe Marie would be able to take on more hours at work but she is very stressed about her 16-year-old son who just severely injured someone in a car accident. She’s thinking about filing for bankruptcy to ease the financial situation.

Be sure to properly assess potential risks

For Florence, adding Marie, or another other loved one, as co-owner on bank and brokerage accounts seemed to be an easy and convenient way of managing her assets and making sure her bills are paid on time.  However, many seniors do not take into account the risks and potential consequences of joint ownership, and the alternatives that can mitigate those risks.

First,  a joint owner has complete access to your accounts and make unlimited withdrawals without your approval. Marie has been helping herself to a little bit here and little bit there for a while now. Florence never knew about it and when she did find out she didn’t ask for it back because she felt bad for Marie. Unfortunately, these were considered disqualifying transfers or “gifts” when Florence applied for MassHealth. She was denied coverage for her nursing home stay because to qualify for MassHealth (Medicaid) you can’t give gifts (or other disqualifying transfers) for five years.

Your co-signer’s liabilities could now be your responsibility

Second, a joint owner is considered owning 100% of the assets, just as you are, regardless of who contributed them in the first place. This leaves your assets vulnerable to their debts and liabilities. If Marie is sued because of her minor son’s  accident, Florence’s bank accounts are at risk. Florence’s bank accounts could also be at risk if Marie files for bankruptcy. If your co-owner goes through a divorce, has a business failure, or gets sued for any other reason, your money could also be exposed to those claims.

Your estate plan could be undermined

Third, when you die, the assets in a jointly-owned account will automatically become the property of the surviving owner.  Florence’s Will directed her estate to be split equally amongst her three children when she died. When she died she only had a few personal effects and a few bank accounts with roughly $10,000. Since Marie was listed as joint owner on all accounts, the funds became legally hers when her mother passed. She knows she has a moral obligation to follow what the Will says, but nobody can make her do it. After all, her brother hasn’t bothered to see her mother in two years and her sister is pretty well-off; she needs the money more than they do anyways.

Protect your assets

One simple alternative is to have a Durable Power of Attorney prepared by an Elder Law Attorney. Your agent under your Power of Attorney would be able to manage your finances on your behalf, including making withdrawals and writing checks without your permission, but the assets would be owned by you alone.

Your agent would have a legal duty to manage your finances on your behalf and in your best interest; your assets would not be subject to your agent’s liabilities; and your assets would not automatically pass to your agent upon your death.

It’s important that you speak to an Elder Law attorney about planning for a time when you may be incapable of managing your own affairs.

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