When a person dies, there are a lot of loose ends that will need to be tied up. One of those loose ends is closing the deceased person’s bank accounts (e.g., checking accounts, savings accounts, retirement accounts). The complexity of this process will depend on a range of factors, including the nature of the account (e.g., Is it a pay-on-death bank account? Is it a joint account?) and whether or not you’ve been granted the legal authority to manage the account, among other things.

While getting access to a deceased person’s bank account can be straightforward (especially if there is a joint account owner or if the deceased account owner had designated a pay-upon-death beneficiary), we recommend working closely with a probate attorney following a loved one’s death to not only ensure that your beneficiary rights are upheld during the administration process, but also as a precaution should any probate disputes or issues arise that need to be promptly addressed. 

In the next section, we review the basics of what happens to a person’s bank account when they die.

If you are interested in learning about how non-cash assets are transferred after death, read our article: What Happens to Property When Someone Dies?


What Happens to a Bank Account When Someone Dies?

There isn’t a simple response for what to do with a deceased person’s bank account, as there are many factors that could affect what happens with this common asset.

It is important to start the process of accessing and/or closing a deceased person’s bank account by considering the answers to the following questions:

  • Did the decedent designate a beneficiary on the account?
  • Did the decedent jointly own the account with someone else (e.g., a spouse)?
  • Did the decedent die with a will or a trust?

First and foremost, it is important to remember that while most checking and savings accounts can be transfer-on-death or pay-on-death bank accounts (which make withdrawing money from the bank account after death immediately possible for the beneficiary designated on the account), it is generally not required for account owners to name a beneficiary, nor are account holders necessarily aware of their right to do so. 

For a standard checking or savings account to have been successfully converted to a transfer-on-death or payable-on-death bank account in California, the account holder should have filled out and signed a type of document known as a “Totten trust with their bank. If they did not take this step, getting access to the deceased person’s bank account could be significantly more complicated.

Do Bank Accounts Have to Go Through Probate?

Bank accounts don’t necessarily have to pass through probate; whether they do depends on the answers to the questions mentioned in the previous section. First, let’s touch on what probate is.

Probate is a court-supervised process used to authenticate a decedent’s will, appoint an executor or administrator of the estate, locate and value estate assets, pay the decedent’s debts and distribute their assets to beneficiaries, among other things. While probate does have its benefits, it can be expensive, time-consuming, challenging to navigate, and emotionally difficult for the decedent’s loved ones, who may still be grieving their loss when the probate process begins. Another downside of probate is that it can delay when beneficiaries and/or heirs receive their inheritances.

As a result of these pitfalls, many people attempt to avoid probate through various means, including by executing trusts, utilizing expedited probate proceedings (e.g., small estate affidavits, Spousal Property Petitions), and designating beneficiaries on transfer-on-death and payable-on-death assets, such as bank accounts, life insurance policies, retirement accounts and annuities. 

When it comes to bank accounts, it is an unfortunate reality that banks often fail to inform account holders of their right to designate a beneficiary on the account. If this is the case and the account wasn’t owned jointly with someone else, it’s highly likely that the account will become a part of the decedent’s estate, resulting in it having to pass through probate. The account will also fall under the authority of the executor or administrator, who can use its funds to pay the decedent’s creditors before distributing what’s left to the estate beneficiaries and/or heirs who are supposed to inherit it.

Another reason why a bank account may have to pass through probate is if the account is the subject of a property dispute. For instance, suppose that the decedent designated a beneficiary on the bank account, but named a different beneficiary to inherit the account in their will. Which beneficiary is entitled to the account? If the beneficiaries choose to litigate this issue in court, the account may ultimately need to pass through probate.

If you’re unsure whether a deceased person’s bank account will need to pass through probate, the best way to find out is to consult with a probate attorney.

What Happens if No Beneficiary Is Named on a Bank Account?

When there is no beneficiary on a bank account, it’s important to find out whether the decedent shared ownership of the account with someone else, because if they did, that person will be presumed to gain full ownership of the account by default. If there was no joint owner, then the account may be subject to probate. 

There are ways to speed up the probate process and settle an estate with a single probate proceeding, as discussed earlier; however, not all estates will be eligible to utilize these procedures, as they are generally intended for small, simple estates or to complete transfers of property from the deceased spouse to the surviving spouse. A probate attorney can help you determine whether a particular estate is eligible for these expedited procedures.

What Happens if There Is a Payable-on-Death Beneficiary for the Bank Account?

A question we’re often asked as probate attorneys is: Do bank accounts with beneficiaries have to go through probate? If there is a payable-on-death beneficiary for a bank account, it generally means that the account doesn’t have to pass through probate. 

Bank account beneficiary rules generally allow payable-on-death beneficiaries to withdraw the entirety of a decedent’s bank account immediately following their death, so long as they present the bank with the proper documentation to prove that the account holder has died and to confirm their own identity. We’ll discuss the documents required for designated beneficiaries to access a decedent’s bank account in a later section.

Of course, there are specific situations in which a designated beneficiary may not work out, resulting in the bank account having to go through probate. For example, perhaps the designated beneficiary on an account could not be located or died before the account holder. Likewise, there could be a dispute relating to the designated beneficiary’s right to the account. As an example, there may be evidence to suggest that the decedent was unduly influenced into adding the beneficiary to the account, which, if successfully proven, could disqualify the beneficiary from receiving any of its funds. 

If a bank account has a pay-upon-death beneficiary, the executor and administrator cannot access its funds to pay the decedent’s debts and/or estate administration expenses; however, if you are a debtor-beneficiary, you should keep in mind that once you claim the deceased person’s bank account, your own creditors can access its funds to satisfy your debts. Likewise, you could be responsible for paying taxes on the money you received. While inheritances are generally exempt from income taxes, it is a good idea to consult with a probate lawyer or CPA following an account holder’s death to learn about your tax liabilities.

What Happens to Joint Bank Accounts on Death?

Joint bank account rules on death are not complicated. They typically allow joint account owner(s) to assume ownership of the deceased account owner’s share of the account once they die, so long as the account carries the right of survivorship (which generally is automatic with joint accounts). This means that while the joint account holders are alive, they share ownership of the account, but once an account holder dies, the surviving account holder(s) assume full ownership of the account by default and can continue using the account as they used to.

Similar to payable-on-death beneficiary rules, joint bank account rules on death do not permit executors and administrators to access a decedent’s joint accounts to pay the decedent’s debts and/or administration expenses. Joint account holders, however, could be liable for paying taxes on any income earned by the account.

What Happens to a Deceased Person’s Bank Account if They Died With a Will?

People create wills to provide instructions for how their assets should be distributed after they die. As a result, the creator of a will (called a testator) may include a provision in the document relating to their bank accounts, even if those accounts have beneficiary designations, to not only provide beneficiaries with the information they need to access the bank accounts, but also to ensure there is no confusion about who is to inherit the accounts.

If a decedent dies with a will, but their bank accounts do not have beneficiary designations, then the bank accounts will become a part of their probate estate. This means that the funds contained in the accounts will be transferred to the court-appointed executor or administrator for deposit into an account, which will be in the name of the decedent’s estate and possibly could be used by the executor or administrator to satisfy the decedent’s debts and pay probate costs. Any remaining funds will be distributed to the decedent’s beneficiaries and/or heirs in accordance with the provisions of their will once the probate process completes.

If a decedent dies with a trust as their primary estate planning document, but their bank accounts don’t have beneficiary designations, probate potentially could be avoided through the filing of a Heggstad Petition, which is a type of 850 Petition, to have the bank accounts transferred into the decedent’s trust estate. While Heggstad Petitions can greatly expedite the process of transferring assets into and out of a trust, the court is under no obligation to approve them, which means that your bank accounts could still be subject to probate.

What Happens to a Deceased Person’s Bank Account if They Died Without a Will?

Closing a bank account after death with no will is not that different from closing a bank account when there is a will. In other words, if a bank account is jointly owned or has a beneficiary designation, its contents can be transferred directly to the joint account holder(s) or designated beneficiary, respectively, following the account holder’s death without the will playing a role in this process.

On the other hand, if the decedent died without a will, but their bank account was not jointly owned and did not have a beneficiary designation, it will become a part of their probate estate, and the administrator will distribute the funds in accordance with the state’s intestate succession laws (which dictate what happens to property when someone dies without a will) upon the termination of the probate process. With intestate succession, a decedent’s assets pass to their closest heirs (e.g., their spouse, children, grandchildren, parents, siblings, etc.)

How to Claim Money From a Bank After Death

Once you understand the circumstances surrounding a deceased person’s bank account (e.g., whether the account is jointly owned or has a beneficiary designation), you will need to figure out how to find the bank accounts of the deceased person and how to get money from the deceased person’s bank accounts

Keep in mind that the decedent’s bank accounts will be inaccessible to most people, even their own family members. For example, our probate attorneys frequently receive inquiries from adult children about how to access the bank account of a deceased parent, and we often have to inform them that they do not have a right to access it at all, since they were not joint owners of the account or designated as beneficiaries on the account. 

Conversely, if the bank account is a part of the probate estate (on account of its lack of a beneficiary designation or joint owner(s)), only the executor or administrator will be able to access it.

How to Find the Bank Accounts of a Deceased Person

Whether you are a designated beneficiary or an executor/administrator, it is crucial to act quickly to locate a deceased person’s bank accounts, because assets that are unclaimed for a prolonged period of time could be sent to your state’s unclaimed property division. While it is possible to reclaim assets the unclaimed property division appropriated, it is best to locate them before it gets to this point. 

In the following subsections, we go over the different ways you can obtain a decedent’s banking information.

Refer to Their Will

Ideally, the decedent will have included information about their bank accounts in their will, but this is not always the case, nor do all decedents die with a will. 

However, chances are that if a decedent died with a will and the will was prepared by an experienced estate planner, it will contain information about their bank accounts. If the decedent died without a will, it may be necessary for you to do some detective work to track their bank accounts down.

Search Their Home and Mail

Considering that banks frequently send communication and billing statements via the postal service, you may be able to easily locate their bank accounts by simply perusing their mail. Likewise, you can search their home for other documents, such as tax returns, ATM receipts and checkbooks, or try logging onto their computer to see if you can find any information there.

Visit Banks in Their Area

While physically stopping by banks close to the decedent’s home or place of work is generally a great way to find out where they kept their money, banks, for obvious reasons, will not release an account holder’s information and funds to just anyone. You will need to provide documentation to prove both that the account holder died and you have the legal authority (as a designated beneficiary, joint account holder or executor/administrator) to access the account.

Call Their Employer

If the decedent had been working for an employer, chances are that their employer has their bank account information from making direct deposits to the account. Similar to banks, the human resources department is unlikely to provide you with the information you are seeking unless you can provide proof that their employee has died and that you have the authority to manage their bank accounts.  

Search Online Databases

As previously mentioned, there is a risk of assets that remain unclaimed for a prolonged period of time being sent to the state; however, it is rare for this to happen. Still, if you are not having any luck locating a decedent’s bank accounts and have tried all the options mentioned above, then it may be worth searching online databases that were created specifically for the purpose of tracking down missing money and/or property.

A few online databases to search include:

Consult With an Experienced Probate Attorney

Figuring out the probate process and how to deal with bank accounts after death can be a lot to handle when you are grieving the loss of a loved one. Luckily, you can pawn off most of these cumbersome tasks on your probate attorney. 

While an attorney can certainly help with locating a decedent’s bank accounts, they are an excellent resource to have by your side for the entirety of estate or trust administration, regardless of your legal needs and whether you are a beneficiary, heir, executor/administrator or trustee.

How to Get Money From a Deceased Person’s Bank Account

To ensure that the money in a decedent’s bank accounts passes to the beneficiaries they intended or to their estate, banks will require you to present certain documents before they release the funds to you. 

The documents you will need to provide depend on whether you are the executor/administrator of the decedent’s estate or a designated beneficiary on the bank account. Keep in mind that joint account holders will not need to provide any documentation to access the account they shared with the decedent and can persist using the account in the same ways they did previously.

Getting Access to a Deceased Person’s Bank Account as the Executor/Administrator

Executors and administrators of a decedent’s estate can only access their bank accounts if the decedent had not designated a beneficiary for the account.

The documents an executor/administrator generally will be required to present to the bank include:

  • A valid government-issued ID
  • The death certificate of the account holder
  • The account holder’s social security number
  • A copy of the Letters of Administration or the Letters Testamentary (these documents become available once the executor/administrator is officially appointed by the court in the initial probate proceeding)

Executors and administrators should obtain multiple copies of the decedent’s death certificate and the Letters of Administration or Letters Testamentary, as these documents will be required for many of the executor tasks they’ll be required to complete over the course of estate administration.

Getting Access to a Deceased Person’s Bank Account as a Designated Beneficiary

If you’ve discovered that you are the designated beneficiary on a loved one’s bank account, you can go to the bank immediately following their death to claim the asset. There typically is not a waiting period for beneficiaries to access these funds; however, laws can vary by state, so it is best to consult with a probate attorney if you have questions about your rights.

The documents a designated beneficiary generally will be required to present to the bank include:

  • A valid government-issued ID
  • A certified copy of the death certificate of the account holder

Once the funds in a decedent’s bank account are released to you, it’s unlikely your entitlement to the funds can be successfully disputed by another party, as recovering money or property that has already been distributed is an uphill battle that is seldom won.

Need Help Navigating Bank Accounts After Death? Our Attorneys Are Equipped to Help.

What happens to a dead person’s bank account? What are some bank account beneficiary rules to be mindful of? What happens if no beneficiary is named on a bank account? The answers to these questions aren’t always so simple. However, with a probate attorney in your corner, you will not just be able to leave the heavy lifting up to them, but you can rest assured that if any issues arise, or your rights as a beneficiary are violated, they will be able to resolve them. Call us today to schedule your free consultation.