When I met with recently widowed well spouses, who were kind enough to share their feelings with me, they were also very eager to share practical things they did that help make their transition to being widowed easier. As I share their stories and ideas I want to emphatically state that I have no idea if some of these ideas have any legal ramifications and one should discuss it with a lawyer. Legalities also differ from place to place. So what may apply in one state may not be done this way or be permissible in another.
Banking And The Joint Account
Most married couples have a joint account that is designated either/or. That means that either person can access the account, deposit or withdraw money, etc. It is my understanding that when one of the spouses dies, the bank blocks the account, and it can no longer be used by the survivor. In order to clear it, both the death certificate and the will must be presented to the bank. This is to rightly ensure that there are no other beneficiaries who may have claim to the account. The problem occurs, however, when everything has been left to the surviving wife or husband.
The account is now frozen; perhaps an estate account is set up and the surviving spouse no longer has access to the funds, though it is temporary. Temporary can last quite a while as bills add up, and you have no access to the money in the account. One woman made note of the fact that over a year after her husband’s death she was still receiving checks in his name and had a very difficult time cashing them as his name was no longer on the account.
Here Are Their Stories
“We always had a joint account.” Said Alice. “It was one of those either/or accounts that make banking easier. Either one of us could do the banking. You know, the way most marriage bank accounts are set up and organizational accounts are not. Well, when my husband passed on, I was advised not to tell the bank of his passing. It was the best advice I got. I inherited everything anyway, so to my way of thinking there was nothing inappropriate. Anyway it was so much easier to handle all those extra bills that were coming in. The burial expense alone was thousands. I don’t know what I would have done if our savings were frozen. I put everything on the charge cards, and I wouldn’t have been able to pay the bills without access to my account. I would have wound up paying the exorbitant interest on the cards until that bank went through the papers just to get me back to where I was in the first place. I hate to think what legal fees I might have incurred as well. It was such an awful time. I think the added stress would have pushed me over the edge.”
“I didn’t know I had to inform the bank of anything,” said Chana. “I just kept on banking like I always did. Checks were still coming in on my husband’s name, because I was in the middle of a move when he passed on, so the utilities and such were cancelled, and the balances sent in checks under his name alone. I just deposited them as usual. I even found hundreds of dollars of older, unused traveler’s checks in his name alone. I just deposited them to our account. I don’t know how I’d have coped otherwise. It’s over a year since his death, and I still periodically get a check for us both, but in his name alone. I just deposit it in our account.”
“I thought I might have to tell the bank that she died,” said Avrum. “But I was so busy with the funeral and later, the mountain of paper work that comes with a death, that I forgot all about it. There was so much to attend to, and we had our affairs in order, each inheriting fully from the other. As a matter of fact I just got her tax refund. It was even made out to ‘the estate of….’ I remember being asked by the teller, who had difficulty speaking English, what ‘estate’ meant. I said it’s when someone dies and you inherit. He didn’t say anything about the account, even though the check was made out to ‘the estate of…and then my wife’s name. Her name was sitting there right on the joint account. Maybe notifying the bank doesn’t apply where I live.”
It is not my goal to advocate anything that is illegal or even just inappropriate. When someone dies, you are up to your elbows in lawyers and questions. It might make sense for you to ask your lawyer what the legalities are for where you live in regard to notifying the bank. According to everyone I spoke to, continuing as you’ve always done with the joint account just makes a very difficult time a bit easier.
Ann Novick can be contacted at email@example.com