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It’s a joint account, but who owns it?

Many people have joint bank accounts and indeed other jointly owned property, it may be a car or a boat, for example.  The biggest thing that people often own jointly, of course, is a house.  Do you have any jointly owned property?  Do you know what happens if your joint owner dies?  Anybody buying a house, if they have a competent solicitor, will have advice as to the different ways in which a property can be owned.  Essentially, you can own as “joint tenants” which means that if one dies the other automatically inherits the property or as “tenants in common”.  In the latter case you do not necessary own the property in equal shares and, when you die, your share will pass under your Will, or if you have been foolish enough not to make a Will, then under the laws of intestacy, which may well not be what you wanted to happen.

However you want to own the property, it is vital that there is a written record of this and your solicitor should advise you about that and guide you through the process.  Some people say they do not want to go through the additional time and, potentially, expense, of having a suitably worded “trust deed” but this can be disastrous if the relationship then breaks up or one of them dies.

The fact that you can own a house in different ways may well be quite well known, but the same principles apply to a bank account, car, boat or any other asset.  Many people have bank accounts with more than one name on, including where there is an elderly person who adds somebody else’s name to the account for ease of operating it, particularly if they are not able to get out and about.  Careful thought needs to be had to what the implications of this are.  In a recent case decided by the Courts the account in question had $190,000 in it when one joint account holder died.  His Executors claimed that as he had provided all the money, the account should be divided between those entitled under his Will.  The joint account owner said all the money was his.  The Court found in favour of the joint account holder who therefore inherited the entire amount in the account.  The reason for this was because the bank forms they signed when they opened the account, in the Court’s opinion, made clear that this is what the two people wanted to happen.

The lesson is here is that careful thought needs to be given when any asset is owned jointly and the best advice is for the decision to be recorded.  Obviously it is sensible to take legal advice, but if you are signing forms in a bank, for example, you need to make sure you carefully read what is said about who owns the account and reflect upon it before signing it.  If you need any advice, you should talk to a solicitor first!

If you would like any advice, please contact Daniel Sproull at, Julie Rowan at or Gary Ovey at or alternatively please call 01208 72328.

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