Is it okay to add one of my kids’ names to my bank account or property to avoid probate and make it easier on my family?
The answer depends upon your situation. It is frustrating that I cannot give you legal advice on this topic, but truly, without knowing your situation, I can give zero advice.
But I can share this information, and maybe you can guess which way I would lean, regardless of your circumstances.
You can add another person to your bank account or deed on your property in order to try and avoid probate. When you add another person, this person become a joint owner of the account. For example, you can add your son to your checking account so that he can write checks for you if you need him to, or deposit funds without a fuss from the bank, etc. When you pass away, he has access to the account immediately, making the transition seamless on his part. That can be considered the upside to adding another name on an account or deed. (You can add someone to your property as well.)
When you add another person to your account or property, they become a joint owner. Legally, you have equal rights to the account or property. Let’s say you add your son John to your checking account. You have a retirement check that is deposited every month, and you use this account for everything: a little savings, and paying the bills. If John gets in any kind of financial trouble, your account is now half his, and your money can be taken. The same goes if you add John to your deed. Your property can have liens put upon it against John. You also cannot just take John off of the account or property…he has to consent to it.
Many people have added children to their accounts or property without incident. A lot of the time it can work. However, a case recently came out that reminds us that things can get really ugly. Let me tell you a story about Betty, Kelli, and Tom.
Betty has two children: Kelli and Tom. She set up a trust, but be also had a separate checking account at Wells Fargo. She put Kelli’s name on the account. When Betty passed away, Tom insisted that the account was meant to go into the trust and be divided between he and Kelli. Kelli disagreed and said that the account was hers because Mom put her name on the account. A court battle ensued: brother and against sister, and vice versa.
What did Betty actually want? It didn’t matter and couldn’t be proven, so the law came into play. Probate Code section 5302 states that there is a presumption that joint property is meant to be just that. You need clear and convincing evidence to overcome the presumption of survivorship laws that govern joint accounts. (You can read the decision HERE.)
If you add a child on a joint account, and tell them to split the money with others after you pass, they do not have any obligation to do so. They can claim it as their own. And it is completely legal.
When you add someone to your account or deed as a joint owner to make things easier after your passing, you may be very well on your way to opening the door to liability and fraud while you are alive, and greedy behavior after your death. Your efforts to avoid your children going to probate court may very well land them there in a protracted battle anyways.
A solid plan that is well executed is your safest bet to both protect your assets while you are living, and to help avoid family battles after you are no longer here to look after your family. Consider what a revocable living trust can do for you.