Financial Planning for Generation X & Y Women
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Expert Q&A Archive

Accessing spouse's accounts in the event of illness or death.
In the event of a spouse’s illness or death, would the other spouse have access to a savings account that was opened only in that one person's name? What about vehicles? We always thought the surviving spouse would have no trouble accessing but are now not so sure.
H. David Whalen:
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In the case of illness, your name would have to be on the bank account. In case of death, if your name was not on the bank account the bank will wait for instructions from probate court. However, the solution is to have a "transfer of death" card on file with the bank. For the car, a "transfer on death" clause should be added to the title before the person's life span ends.
Jody Rorick, CPA:
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If the surviving spouse's name isn't on the bank account, then he/she can't access the account. If it's a joint account in both names, though, then the surviving spouse can access the account. As for the car, if it's titled in the deceased spouse's name, then title has to be transferred to the surviving spouse. It doesn't keep the surviving spouse from driving the car, but the surviving spouse couldn't sell the car without changing the title to his/her name.
Martina A. Jimenez:
expert info »
In the event of a death, the surviving spouse who does not jointly own that account with the deceased spouse will not have access to the account unless, you are a signer on the account or have a durable power of attorney from that spouse.

To review ownership of assets and bank accounts you should talk to your financial advisor about titling your accounts and assets jointly or individually.
Pamela J. Sams, CRPC, MBA:
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If your financial accounts are in your name only or your spouse's name only, that account can only be accessed by that individual. In order to resolve this issue, you may wish to consider putting all of your accounts in both names, yours and your spouse’s. You may also consider signing a power of attorney. This document gives an agent authority to act on your behalf or your spouse’s behalf if illness or death occurs, depending upon the scope and terms of the document. This agent or "attorney-in-fact" can be your spouse, a relative or a trusted friend. In death, assets can be transferred to spouse if spouse is listed as beneficiary.
Joan Koonce, Ph.D:
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This could vary depending on whether it is a community property state or separate property state (referred to as common law state by some). It would be a good idea to check with your local probate court or an estate planning attorney.
Connie K. Marmet:
expert info »
No. State laws vary, but in general, if only one spouse's name is on the title, in the event of their death, the property would be transferred by the [provisions of the] will or if there is no will, through probate. In either event, transfer of title would not be immediate. In California, property would need to be held in joint tenancy with right of survivorship to pass immediately and without using a will or probate. The questioner should check their state laws.
Editor's Note:
As you can see from the above responses, whether the spouse would have access to a savings account or other property is dependent on various things, including whose name is on the account or, for example, the title to a vehicle and on the laws in the state in which you live. The Wi$Up curriculum chapter on “Achieving Financial Security” has a section on “Estate Planning Basics,” which discusses the four basic estate planning tools: a will, a durable power of attorney, living will, and medical durable power of attorney. As we say in that chapter, “Consulting a financial planner as well as an attorney will help put together the estate planning documents in a way that reflects your financial circumstances and wishes.”
Virginia Clay CFA:
expert info »
This is called a Titling issue and it is really a legal question. Generally, if an owner of an account dies, then the account is frozen, and you do not have access. A reasonable way to begin working on this issue for your family is to go to the bank or credit union and meet with someone properly trained to advise you on your titling options. If you do not have up-to-date wills and other related documents, you may want to meet with an attorney. You may also consider going to the library and checking out a book on estate planning. It would help you know at least what to ask.
Delores Lenzy - Jones, CPA, CIA:
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Different states have different rules. In the state of Texas, if you have joint survivorship on your account, there will not be a problem of getting the money.

Editor’s Note: You can find a clear definition of Joint Tenancy with Right of Survivorship at -survivorship.htm.