2. Proof that you can act on behalf of the estate
You'll also need proof that you have the authority to act on behalf of the estate. The documentation you need depends on your legal relationship to the deceased, such as in the scenarios outlined below.
- If you are a joint owner of the account: As a joint owner of the account, closing the account should be fairly straightforward. That's because most banks require that joint accounts be established as Joint with Rights of Survivorship (JWROS),1 meaning when one co-owner dies, the other automatically become the sole owner of the account.
Sometimes a bank may set up a checking account as Payable-on-death (POD).2 For this type of account, the owner designates a beneficiary who will inherit any money in the account after death. The beneficiary is not entitled to money in the account while the owner is alive, but automatically becomes the owner of the account upon the original owner's death.
In these cases, simply visit the bank with a valid ID and a certified copy of the death certificate. You will then have access to the account, allowing you to withdraw the funds as needed.
- If you have power of attorney: Power of attorney (POA) gives someone temporary or permanent legal authority to make decisions on behalf of another adult, such as an aging parent or loved one. For example, a father diagnosed with Alzheimer's may give his adult daughter power of attorney to make financial decisions for him in the event that he cannot.
POAs are important tools, but they cannot be used to close a bank account after someone passes away for the simple reason that a POA expires once the principal (the person granting authority to another) dies.3
To handle financial affairs after death, the person named as Power of Attorney will either need to be named as executor of the estate or petition to become administrator of the estate.
- If you are a trustee of the deceased: If your loved one set up a living trust, the checking account may be held in the name of the trust. If you are named as the successor trustee (the person who assumes control of the trust after the initial trustee dies), you should notify the bank that the initial trustee has died. You will also need to provide a certified copy of the death certificate. The bank will also need to see a copy of the Certificate of Trust naming the successor trustee, and the bank will have some forms that need to be filled out.
- If you are the executor: Single-holder accounts are more difficult to close than joint accounts or those held in the name of a trust. Legally, only the owner has legal access to the funds, even after death. A court must grant someone else the power to withdraw money and close the account.
If you are named as an executor in the deceased's will, you must produce proof of your executor status and provide a certified copy of the death certificate before the bank will provide access to the account.
- If there's no will or no executor named in the will: If there is no will or the person who should handle the estate is not named in the will, a relative or legal representative must request permission from the probate court to close the account. If there's a will without a named executor, the court will issue a Letter of Testamentary; if there's no will, the court will issue a Letter of Administration. Present either of these letters to the bank along with the death certificate to close the account.
The death of a loved one is challenging from both an emotional and logistical perspective. As long as you have the right documentation, dealing with this aspect of a friend or family member's death doesn't have to distract you from your other responsibilities at this difficult time.
If one of those other responsibilities is dealing with your loved one's credit card debts, check out this article on what to do when a credit card holder passes away.