Joint Accounts and Estate Planning


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Far too often, an elderly parent writes a will laying out an estate plan in detail, then opens a joint bank account "for convenience" with one child as the joint account holder. Chances are, the document signed to create that account says the bank account goes to the child upon the parent's death. But, what if the parent wanted everything split equally between the four children? Iowa law generally says sorry, it goes to the surviving account holder. Joint accounts are ideal for the typical married couples who intend mutual access to the account during life and a survivorship right at the death of one. 


Thirty years ago, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in In re Estate of Boldt that a testator could not use her will to revoke the joint tenancy she had with one child so that everything would pass equally between the two children. The court pointed out that an interest in joint property passes immediately at death, and is therefore never controlled by the will. The court noted it was clear the testator wanted everything split equally, but the court did not have the power to change the will to effectuate that.


The concept of a joint account is well-intentioned: give someone else who is in better health the ability to help with financial affairs. Instead of a joint bank account leaving the entire account to the survivor (which is often not the intent), here are two other suggestions:

  1. Don't create a joint account "for convenience" if you are the only one contributing money to the account. Instead, use a general durable power of attorney to give the child access to that account to pay your bills, etc.
  2. Draft the will to account for property passing outside the will, such as joint accounts. The language in the will could provide that the children are to divide all property equally, taking account of joint accounts or retirement benefits passing outside the will as a result of death.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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