Most people throughout their lifetime have a checking and savings account at a bank or credit union. Married couples tend to have “joint banking accounts” which means that each spouse has access to those funds. If one spouse dies, the surviving spouse is still able to withdraw the money. Or sometimes, as individuals age, they will add a child to that account as a joint owner. This might be done so that the child can pay their bills if necessary. And finally, sometimes people name beneficiaries on their accounts. They tend to do this because they do not want that person to have access to the money now, but they do want that beneficiary to receive the money when they die. However, what happens if someone dies and there is no joint owner on the account, and they failed to name a beneficiary?

Probate will almost certainly be necessary if a person dies and was the only account owner and did not name a beneficiary. Probate is a legal process in which a judge determines who gets what of a person’s stuff after they die. (Watch our “What is Probate?” video). 

In the article below, we are going to discuss what steps you need to take and what options are available to you if you cannot get access to your loved one’s bank account after their passing.

What should you do first?

Unfortunately, money has a way of disappearing from a person’s bank account after they die. Sadly, family members who have access to that account may try and withdraw money or use a debit card to make purchases. There might also be automatic payments to memberships or other services that get paid from their bank account on a monthly basis but are obviously now of no use to that person since they have passed away. Each situation is unique, however, we generally recommend that any and all institutions, such as banks, where the person had money, be notified of their passing. Once the bank learns that the person has died, they will freeze the account and no payments or withdraws can be made. This is good for purposes of stopping people from stealing money from the account and making sure unnecessary automatic payments are no longer being made. 

However, there may be a mortgage which is getting paid on a monthly basis directly from that account. If you do not have the funds to pay the mortgage yourself, you may consider not immediately freezing the account so that the mortgage keeps getting paid and the property does not go into foreclosure. This is why we recommend you consult with an experience Florida probate attorney as soon as possible.

Next Steps

Chances are you have confirmed that you are not on the account as either an owner or a beneficiary. (If you have not, this should really be your first step). Assuming you are not, when you go to ask about the decedent’s money, the bank or financial institution will most likely not speak with you or give you any information. They are going to ask you for the Letters of Administration or Order Appointing Personal Representative, or some variation of those forms. Those are what the forms are called in Florida, however some banks may use the term Letters of Testamentary or Appointment of Executor. Regardless of the exact name, the bank needs specific documents from the probate court which will authorize you to speak with the bank about your love one’s account, withdraw those funds and close the account. Therefore, the next steps will be to open a probate in the county where the person died, resided or had assets in. Again, your Florida probate attorney can help you determine the correct county in which to file the probate documents. 

The probate process may vary a bit but generally it will proceed more or less as follows: a judge will name a Personal Representative of the estate. The Personal Representative, with the help of the probate attorney, will submit the required paperwork to the bank and the bank will issue a check made out to the estate. Those funds will be held in escrow until the judge signs an order authorizing that the money be paid to the beneficiaries of the estate. This process can range anywhere from two months to over a year depending on the circumstances. You can watch a short 5-minute video in which we discuss how long the average probate takes by clicking here

Things to Remember

We often receive phone calls from people telling us that their mom or dad died and that they have money in a bank account. We soon learn that their sibling was a joint account owner or beneficiary on the account but that their mom or dad said this money was theirs or even left a Last Will and Testament which said they were to get the money. Unfortunately, if a person is on the bank account as an owner, they could go in and withdraw all of the money today if they wanted to. They could even withdraw the money while the parent is alive. Sadly, this happens frequently when a parent is suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia. Also, if they are named as a beneficiary, they can go and receive the money as the parent dies.

Even if the parent had other wishes and left a Will saying otherwise, the bank will only release the money to the owner of the account or the beneficiary. As you can imagine, this can leave a lot of tension between families.   

Final Thoughts

Losing a loved one is never easy and dealing with banks and financial institutions will definitely frustrate you to no end. Unfortunately, if your loved one did not name a joint owner or beneficiary on their account, probate is more than likely going to be necessary. That means that you will probably need to hire a Florida probate attorney to get access to that money. 

Fortunately, we at The Probate Law Firm understand what you are going through, and it is our goal and mission to cause you as little stress and headaches as possible. We want to make this simple for you. We don’t want you on hold for hours at a time waiting for some bank representative to pick up only to tell you that he or she needs to transfer you to another department. We do all of the heavy lifting and handle these annoying tasks so that you don’t have to.

To learn more about The Probate Law Firm and our services, we would encourage you to call our friendly staff at 305-456-3255 to schedule your strategy session today.