State laws related to joint property vary, but in most states, joint bank accounts work on the premise that if one owner dies, the other owner assumes full control of the account. Such accounts are referred to as joint accounts with the rights of survivorship. The surviving owner can continue to write checks and use debit cards to make withdrawals from the account without restriction. However, in some states, when a joint owner dies, half of the account becomes the property of that owner’s estate. Someone appointed by the court to act as the deceased's estate administrator can access funds by producing a death certificate, court papers and a valid form of identification.
Many people name pay-on-death, or POD, beneficiaries on their bank accounts. The Federal Reserve recognizes POD accounts as revocable trusts. As with any revocable trust, the named beneficiary assumes control of the account upon the death of the original owner. In order to access funds, beneficiaries must provide the bank with a copy of the death certificate and a form of identification that complies with bank’s policy requirements. Generally, most banks only accept government-issued identification, such as passports or driver's licenses. The POD beneficiary cannot continue to use the account; instead, the bank closes the account and gives the funds to the beneficiary.
When someone with a single ownership bank account dies without having named any account beneficiaries, the account and the rest of the deceased’s estate must go through probate. A probate judge reviews the deceased’s will, if one exists, and decides how to settle the estate. The judge appoints an executor to oversee the estate and produces letters of administration that name the executor and provide instructions for settling the estate. The executor can close the account by providing these letters, along with a death certificate and valid identification to the bank holding the account.
Some people establish living trusts during their lifetimes. Trusts are legal entities that are distinct from the individual that created the trust. When the person creating the trust, known as the grantor, dies, the trust continues to exist. The named trustee administers the trust and any assets, such as bank accounts, that belong to the trust. The trustee can make withdrawals by writing checks or in-person bank withdrawals, but must distribute funds in accordance with the instructions contained within the trust document.