Probate is the legal process of proving the validity of a will, identifying property, paying debts and distributing assets. The process can take anywhere from a couple of months to years, depending on the state. Certain assets may bypass probate based on ownership, however. For example, a joint bank account is exempt from probate.
Although a last will and testament designates who you want to inherit your possessions, it doesn't keep your family out of court. State probate laws and procedures differ based on where you live. Some offer a streamlined process for assets that are below a certain amount, generally $20,000. A bank account owned alone without any designated beneficiaries would typically need to go through probate. If you are married, but your spouse isn't named on the account, the spouse will likely need to go through probate to inherit the funds.
When a joint account holder passes away, the surviving account holder becomes the sole owner of the account. The surviving account holder must bring a copy of the death certificate to the bank to verify the other account holder is deceased. The decedent's name then is removed from the account without having to go through probate. Without the right of survivorship on a joint account, the money won't go to the surviving account holder.
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A payable-on-death account allows you to designate beneficiaries to inherit the money without probate. A POD designation can be added to an existing account by filling out a short form naming the person or individuals you want to inherit the account funds. During your lifetime, the beneficiary has no access to the account. You remain in full control of your money. You can change your beneficiary at any time. In the event of your death, the named beneficiary must show the bank a copy of your death certificate and identification to collect the funds in the account. POD accounts aren't restricted to individual accounts. A joint account also can have a designated POD. However, funds will go to the surviving account holder before passing to the beneficiary.
Accounts Without a Beneficiary
Whether you have an individual bank account or an account formerly held jointly, it's important to add a POD beneficiary. If you pass away without naming a POD, the money in the account becomes subject to probate. Depending on the amount of money in the account, it could takes years before your family members are able to inherit the money. The process is often expensive and time consuming.