Who Gets the Joint Bank Account Monies if One Owner Dies?

Last updated on February 18, 2022

holding bank passbook

There are many reasons why people open joint bank accounts. Some people may do so to streamline their finances or meet financial goals, while others may do so because they think it is only natural to join their bank accounts after marriage.

Whatever the reason, it is important to know and plan for what will happen to the money in the joint account if one of the account owners passes on. This is because bitter disputes may arise as to whether the money goes to the estate of the deceased joint owner or to the surviving owner if no plans are made beforehand.

If you own a joint account together with another person (be it your spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend, parent or anyone else), read on to find out:

Who Owns the Money If One of the Joint Account Holders Passes Away?

Most people assume that if one owner of the joint account passes away, then that other owner will be able to claim all the money in the account. In law, this is known as the “right of survivorship”. In fact, many banks state in their terms and conditions that they have the right to pay out all the monies to the surviving joint account holder.

However, in the event of a legal dispute between the surviving joint account holder and the estate of the deceased joint account owner, things are usually not so straightforward.

While the right of survivorship is the starting point, the court will also try to determine the intentions of the deceased owner of the joint account as to what is to happen to the account monies after their passing. There are generally two possibilities.

  1. No intention to make a gift to the surviving owner – The court may determine that the deceased account owner’s intention was not to make a “gift” (of his/her contributions to the joint account) to the surviving owner upon his/her death. In such a case, the court would generally rule that each party (or party’s estate in the case of the deceased account owner) is entitled to only the money in the joint account that they had each contributed.
  2. Intention to make a gift to the surviving owner – The court might determine that the deceased owner’s intention in opening the joint account was that the surviving owner would have the right to all the monies in the account after the deceased party passed away. In other words, the deceased owner intended to make a “gift” of the account monies to the surviving owner. If so, the court would then rule that the surviving owner is entitled to all the money in the account.

If the court is able to determine a clear intention on the part of the deceased party based on the facts of the case, then the court will decide according to those intentions borne out by the evidence. Such evidence includes:

  • Documents written by the deceased owner clearly stating his/her intentions for any remaining monies in the joint account,
  • Evidence showing the state of the deceased owner’s relationship with the surviving owner, and
  • Evidence of the deceased owner’s actions before opening the joint account that indicate his/her intentions for opening the joint account. For example, a loving father may state in his will that he wishes to give his assets to his daughter and then open a joint bank account with his daughter.

However, by the time one of the joint account owners dies, sufficient evidence of his/her intentions may be hard to obtain. For example, if the deceased owner died many years after the joint account had been opened, it is possible that very few people (or no one at all) will remember the circumstances in which the joint account was set up.

In such a scenario, where there is insufficient evidence of the intentions of the deceased owner, the court will usually resort to “presumptions”. In other words, the court may “presume” the intention of the parties if a certain set of facts exists.

There are two main presumptions that the court resorts to, which correspond to the possible intentions of the deceased owner as mentioned above:

  1. Presumption of resulting trust – A presumption that the deceased owner had not intended to benefit (i.e. make a gift of the money he/she had contributed to the joint account to) the surviving owner.
  2. Presumption of advancement – A presumption that the deceased owner had intended to make a gift (of all the money he/she contributed to the joint account) to the surviving owner.

Assuming there is no direct evidence of a clear intention on the part of the deceased joint account owner, the court will be able to apply the two presumptions in the following circumstances:

  1. Presumption of resulting trust (i.e. the deceased owner did not intend to gift the joint account monies to the surviving owner) – Applied if the contributions made to the joint account were unequal. This includes situations where one joint account owner contributed 100% of the monies in the joint account and the other owner contributed nothing.
  2. Presumption of advancement (i.e. the deceased owner intended to gift the joint account monies to the surviving owner) – If a presumption of resulting trust arises but the deceased owner was in a relationship where he/she would be regarded as morally obliged to provide for the surviving owner. Currently, there are two categories of relationships that give rise to this presumption:
    • Where the deceased owner was the husband and the surviving owner was the wife. This also includes the situations where:
      • The deceased owner husband-to-be had been engaged to the surviving owner wife-to-be and the joint account owners did not subsequently break their engagement.
      • Both parties had registered their marriage and mistakenly believed that their marriage had legal effect when it did not (E.g. remarrying when a party’s previous marriage had yet to be annulled, which causes the remarriage to be invalid).
    • Where the deceased owner was the father or person acting in the place of a parent (“in loco parentis”) of the surviving owner.

Although the Singapore court has expressed a willingness to apply the presumption of advancement to new categories of relationships, this presumption currently does not apply to any other category of relationships, including the following relationships:

  • Where the deceased owner was the wife and the surviving owner was the husband.
  • Where the deceased owner was the mother of the surviving owner.
  • Where the joint account owners were part of an unmarried couple (whether heterosexual or homosexual) even if they were cohabiting.
  • Where the joint account owners were a man and his mistress.

The court will therefore be unable to presume that the deceased owner had intended to gift the joint account monies to the surviving owner in such situations.

However, even if the court can apply the presumption of advancement for the two categories stated above, the strength of the presumption, i.e. how likely the court is to apply it, may differ based on the exact nature and state of parties’ relationship (explained below).      

The court would analyse the strength of each presumption in the following manner:

  1. Presumption of resulting trust (i.e. the deceased owner did not intend to gift the joint account monies to the surviving owner):
    • The presumption of resulting trust is weaker when the joint account owners are married.
    • The presumption of resulting trust would be stronger in a scenario where the surviving owner was the deceased owner’s lawyer.
  2. Presumption of advancement (i.e. the deceased owner intended to gift the joint account monies to the surviving owner):
    • Nature of the relationship:
      • The greater the obligation (legal, moral or otherwise) that the deceased owner had towards the surviving owner, the stronger the presumption of advancement.
      • The more dependent the surviving owner was on the deceased owner, the stronger the presumption of advancement.
    • State of the relationship:
      • The presumption of advancement would be stronger if the relationship was a close and caring one.
      • The presumption of advancement would be weaker if the relationship was one of mere formal convenience.

Each presumption can also be rebutted by evidence. A stronger presumption would require higher-quality evidence to rebut.

To rebut each presumption, one should show that the party did not possess the intention attributed to him/her via the presumption. For example, if the presumption of advancement applies, then the court presumes that the deceased owner intended to make a gift to the surviving owner. This can be rebutted by showing that this was not the intention, e.g. with evidence that the joint account was created solely for the purpose of convenience.

In addition, it should be noted that if the presumption of advancement arises, then it itself rebuts the presumption of resulting trust. In summary, in determining whether the surviving owner would be entitled to all the money in the joint account, the court would adopt the following analysis:

  1. From the evidence, did the deceased owner clearly intend for all the monies in the bank account to the surviving owner?
    • If the answer is yes, the court will decide according to those intentions.
    • If the answer is no, the court will proceed with the remaining steps of this analysis.
  2. Is there evidence of unequal contributions to the joint account?
    • If the answer is yes, then the presumption of resulting trust can arise. It is presumed that the deceased owner did not intend to gift the joint account monies to the surviving owner. Instead, it is presumed that the deceased owner intended for the monies to be divided among the surviving owner and the (estate of the) deceased owner based on their respective contributions to the account.
    • If the answer is no, then all the monies in the joint account will go to the surviving owner.
  3. If the presumption that the deceased owner did not intend to gift the joint account monies to the surviving owner (i.e. the presumption of resulting trust) can arise, determine how strong the presumption is and therefore whether it should be applied.
  4. However, even if it should be presumed that the deceased owner did not intend to gift the joint account monies to the surviving owner, is there sufficient evidence of the actual intentions of the deceased account owner that would rebut this presumption?
    • If there is, then the court will decide on the ownership of the money in the joint account according to those intentions.
  5. If there is insufficient evidence of the actual intentions of the deceased account owner to rebut the presumption, is it possible for the court to rebut it by instead presuming that the deceased owner intended to gift the joint account monies to the surviving owner (i.e. applying the presumption of advancement)?
  6. If the presumption that the deceased owner intended to gift the joint account monies to the surviving owner (i.e. the presumption of advancement) can apply, determine how strong the presumption is and therefore whether it should be applied.
  7. However, even if it should be presumed that the deceased account owner intended to gift the joint account monies to the surviving owner, the court will still determine if this presumption has been rebutted by the evidence, e.g. if the joint account was opened out of convenience.
    • If the presumption has not been rebutted, then the presumption of resulting trust is displaced, and the monies in the joint account will go to the surviving owner.
    • If the presumption has been rebutted by the evidence, the then original presumption of resulting trust would apply, and the monies will be divided among the surviving owner and the (estate of the) deceased owner based on their respective contributions.

How relevant are bank terms and conditions in determining what happens to the money in joint accounts when an owner passes away?

It should be noted that while bank terms and conditions usually spell out that the money in the joint account will be paid to the surviving account owner, this in itself is not conclusive.

Although such documents may be strong evidence that the monies in the joint account should go to the surviving account owner, it must be proven that they provide accurate evidence of the parties’ real intentions in the first place.

This can be shown if the terms and conditions are clearly drafted and if the deceased account owner had been (or had been made) fully aware of them (or at least that the terms mean that the monies in the joint account would go to the surviving owner).

Even if the deceased owner did not actually read the terms and conditions of the joint account, the terms and conditions could still be considered accurate evidence of his/her real intentions. This would be the case if, for example, the deceased owner was a savvy businessperson who knew generally in layman terms that the surviving owner would be entitled to the money upon his/her death in accordance with the terms and conditions of opening the joint account.

In the case of bank accounts held and operated jointly by people where it can be presumed that the deceased owner intended to gift the joint account monies to the surviving owner (i.e., husband and wife, father and child), there will also be a strong inference that the monies in the joint account should go to the surviving owner (because the presumption of resulting trust will have been rebutted).

In such a scenario, bank documents stating that the money in the joint account will go to the surviving owner upon one owner’s death can strengthen this inference (though it would not be conclusive in itself). Ultimately, this means that the court would likely decide in such circumstances to award all the monies in the joint account to the surviving owner.

Making Your Intentions Clear to Avoid Disputes

Knowing how the court will analyse the intentions of the parties is one thing, but any such analysis will necessarily involve judgement calls by the court, such as what weight to give to the various presumptions or to the evidence of both parties.

This means that in the event of a dispute, there is virtually no way to know with certainty how the court will divide up the money in the joint account. This can lead to undue stress for the surviving account holder, which could be compounded further by the costs of litigation.

As a result, the practical solution to reduce the risk of facing these problems altogether (or at least make the outcome of any legal dispute far more certain) is for all owners of the joint account to clearly document their intentions as to the money in the joint account. This can be in a willtrust or other declaratory document that is formal enough to clear any question about the joint account owners’ intentions.

In that document, you would want to state clearly whether your intention was to give the money that you contributed to the joint account to the surviving account owner. If this was not your intention, especially in the case where the joint account was opened simply out of convenience (e.g., a joint account with your child), you should then state your intention clearly and record what portion of the money in the joint account you had contributed. You should also state how you wish to have your contribution to the joint account be dealt with after your passing.

To clear any lingering doubts, it may be even better if this document is one that is signed by all the owners of the joint account. This would be preferable to only using a document like a will (although this would still be helpful), because a will indicates the intention of only its maker and not anyone else. It is also not usual to use a will to distribute money in a joint account as this is unlikely to be money that your estate is legally entitled to upon your death (assuming that the money will go to the surviving owner when this happens).

Nonetheless, it would still be helpful to make your intentions clear in your will, especially if your intention is that your estate is to be entitled to the monies that you had contributed to the joint account, instead of the other owner.

How to Go About Claiming the Money in a Joint Account

As a surviving account owner

If you wish to claim the money in the joint account as a surviving account owner, different banks may have different procedures based on their terms and conditions.

For example, in some cases, the bank will immediately “freeze” the joint account (i.e. no withdrawals allowed) once it is notified of the deceased account owner’s death. It must then receive the relevant legal documentation (such as a Grant of Probate or Grant of Letters of Administration) from the surviving joint account owner(s) to close the account.

In other cases, the bank will not freeze the bank account unless requested to do so by the representative of the estate of the deceased owner. Further, in the absence of a dispute, the account might automatically belong to the surviving owner(s), becoming an individual bank account if there is only one surviving owner.

If a legal dispute involving the monies in the joint account arises, be aware that the terms and conditions of the account may require you, as the surviving account owner, to pay for any expenses that the bank incurs in the course of the dispute.

Thus, you should read the terms and conditions of the bank account, and perhaps call your bank for clarity on how to claim the money in the joint account.

You may also want to read our other article on how to access the bank account of a deceased spouse.

As a member of the deceased account owner’s estate

If, instead, you are a member of the estate of the deceased account owner and believe there is a claim over the monies in the joint account, then you should ask the bank to freeze the joint account.

The bank may require legal documents, such as the following:

  • Original Grant of Letters of Administration (if the deceased owner passed away without a will) or Grant of Probate (if the deceased account owner passed away leaving behind a will)
  • Death Certificate of the deceased account owner
  • Authorisation for closure of account signed by all administrators or executors (i.e. the people in charge of administering the deceased owner’s assets).
  • Identity documents for all administrators or executors.

The concept of joint accounts sounds simple at first. If the joint account owner dies, the surviving owner gets the money, right? Unfortunately, as discussed above, the law is not always so straightforward. This is especially if the estate of the deceased owner disputes the ownership of the monies, and it is unclear what the deceased’s intentions on the monies are.

If you are a surviving joint account owner or a member of a deceased account owner’s estate who is caught up in such a dispute, or if you simply want to plan ahead, you should consult a wills or trusts lawyer to help you, among other things, claim the money in the joint account, help you draft a will or declaratory document to make your intentions crystal clear, and/or navigate the complex web of legal issues that arise from such disputes.

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