Q&A: Couples and their accounts

Dear Liz: You’ve been writing about things people should do after a spouse dies. May I recommend that before your spouse dies, be sure every account is in both your names.

It took six months to cancel my landline phone after my husband died and I moved out of our home. Apparently when we moved in 30 years ago, the service was in just my husband’s name. (I finally reached someone who said, “I don’t know why you’re having so much trouble with this!” and fixed it.)

Also, it took 1½ years, plus hundreds in lawyer fees, to get access to the safe deposit box that he’d had with his parents. This is despite a trust and will leaving everything to me. I was told that “banks don’t care about wills.”

Answer: That’s an excellent suggestion. It’s a lot easier to add a spouse to an account while you’re both alive. It’s a good idea to review all your accounts periodically to make sure the right people are on them, either as joint account holders or as beneficiaries.

Not every account can or should be in both spouses’ names, of course.

Modern credit card accounts, for example, typically aren’t jointly held but instead have a primary cardholder and an authorized user. Also, retirement accounts are in one person’s name alone, although the spouse typically is the beneficiary.

Banks aren’t the only entities that can ignore wills. Typically a payable-on-death account will go to the beneficiary, regardless of what a will or trust says. And speaking of estates, sometimes accounts will be held separately for estate planning purposes.

If you have an estate planning attorney, check with that person before changing how accounts are held.

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Comments

  1. What is the waiting period for two divorced people, of full retirement age both collecting their own, if they decide to get married and one spouse dies to be able to collect on deceased spouses SS, higher amount?