It has become common practice in Virginia for a surviving parent, after their spouse has passed away, to name one of their children as a co-owner of some or all of their financial accounts. There are a few reasons parents do this, but oftentimes it is to make sure that the child can access the parent’s account for the parent’s benefit if the parent becomes mentally or physically incapacitated. It is sometimes perceived as a shortcut to creating a proper estate plan with a portfolio of legal documents drafted by an attorney.
However, adding a child as a joint owner of your financial accounts is fraught with peril. Here are three of the main reasons:
- By adding your child as a joint owner, you are exposing your financial accounts to your child’s creditors. If your child ever goes through financial hardship (perhaps even due to a tragic accident), their creditors may try to collect by garnishing your child’s financial accounts, including ones where you established your child as a joint owner.
- Second, you are exposing your finances to your child’s control before you need to cede control. You hope that your child will continue to act in your best interests once you add them as a joint owner to your accounts. Most children will. But some do not, sometimes due to pressure from a spouse. And when they do not, you cannot simply remove the child from your accounts. You must have the child’s written permission to have them removed as a co-owner. Or you can close the account and withdraw all of the funds; of course, you have given your wayward child the ability to do the same thing.
- Finally, you may unintentionally disinherit your other children. For example, you have three children, two of whom live in another state, and one lives locally. It is not rare in such a case for a parent to add the child who lives locally as the joint owner on the financial accounts. However, if that is done, joint accounts usually have a survivorship clause in the contract. Which means when the one co-owner dies, the account is now solely the property of the surviving co-owner. Which means the local child inherits all of your financial assets at your death while your other children receive nothing.
There are more problems, of course, but no need to pile on.
So, what do you do? How do you properly allow a child to help you with your finances without adding the child as a co-owner on your accounts? One method is to make your child an “authorized signer” on your financial accounts. That way, the child can sign checks and engage in transactions on your behalf while exposing your finances to only some, but not all, of the perils of co-ownership.
A far stronger solution is that you can, as part of your estate plan, name a child your financial agent in a General Durable Power of Attorney document. Under such a document, your child has the power to engage in financial transactions of your behalf, but they are not considered a co-owner of the accounts. The child has obligations to meet under the law to act in your best interests as your agent and you can revoke the Power of Attorney documents at any time, unless you lack mental capacity.
There are additional aspects of an estate plan that can even make it easier on your child to help you, while simultaneously protect you and your family even more. If you would like more information, please call our team at PJI law at (703) 865-6100, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.