The question of how to access a deceased person’s bank account is a broad-based question, but is certainly one that people ask quite frequently and therefore merits a blog posting.
The issue of access for a decedent’s bank account comes down to how the bank account is titled. In the context of a checking or savings account, a bank account, in its simplest form, can be titled in the name of an individual with no named beneficiary. If this is the case, and the bank account is not “ITF” (in trust for) or “POD” (payable on death) to an individual, then this bank account will need to be settled through an estate proceeding. If the decedent had a valid will, there will need to be a probate proceeding with an Executor appointed to administer the account. Conversely, if there is no will, an administration proceeding will need to be filed and an Administrator appointed to handle the analogous role of an Executor.
However, it is quite common for a bank account to be titled between two (2) family members, such as between spouses or a parent and a child. In either case, these accounts would usually have the designation JTWROS (joint tenancy with right of survivorship), which means that when one of the joint account holders passes away, the surviving joint account holder will take full ownership of the account by operation of law. This titled account would be deemed a testamentary substitute and pass outside the decedent’s estate, and therefore would not have to be held up in an administration or probate proceeding. (Unless it can be established that the account is a convenience account, but that is a discussion for another blog posting).
In the above cases, the surviving joint tenant or the beneficiary whose account is ITF or POD can access the bank account upon the showing of a valid death certificate to the bank representative. For a bank account that has to be administered through the decedent’s estate, the bank will need to see current Letters Testamentary or Letters of Administration naming the fiduciary as the person authorized to open an estate account and access the aforementioned bank account.