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Saturday, February 19, 2011

If my name is on my Dad's account when he dies, do I own it?

I notice that in the majority of questions I'm asked about parents and adult children owning assets together, the question contains the words "my name is on it".  I'm not surprised that so many people are uncertain about the ownership and ultimate destination of assets when this is the full extent of the information available to them. Your name can be "on" an asset in more than one way, and even then, there are other circumstances that may affect whether or not you will own that asset after your parent passes away.

The first fact that you must clarify is whether an asset is held jointly with a right of survivorship, or whether it's held as tenants-in-common ("TIC"). You are likely to find the TIC situation only with real estate, including mines and minerals titles, and not on bank accounts. The fact that there are two names on a land title does not necessarily mean that the title is jointly held.

To know for sure whether land is held jointly or as TIC, you must read the title itself (or a search of title, which can be done through a lawyer's office or a registry). If the title is TIC, you will see wording such as "each as to an undivided one-half interest" or some variation on that.

If you are a TIC on a title, you will own only your share of the title when the other person dies. The other person can dispose of his share in his Will, or if there is no Will it will be divided on intestacy.

If an asset is jointly held, this usually gives rise to a right to survivorship. This means that when one of the owners dies, the other owner continues to own the whole asset. This is commonly seen in bank accounts and investment accounts, as well as real estate.

Once you have established whether you own something jointly or as TIC, you have taken the first step. As mentioned above, if you are a TIC, you have your answer. But if you are a joint owner, the question is not yet fully answered.

The complication arises whenever an asset is owned inter-generationally. The usual situation is between a parent and a child, though it could also be between an aging relative and his or her niece, nephew, grandchild, etc. In these situations, our highest court has said that when there is an account held intergenerationally, and the parent is the one who actually put the money in, on the death of the parent the money is deemed to be held in trust for the parent's estate. This is drastically different from what used to happen automatically with joint accounts.

What must happen next is that there must be some written record of whether the parent intended for the money to go to the child by right of ownership. The record must have been made around the time the child's name was put on the account. If no such record exists (and in the vast majority of cases, it doesn't) then the child has to give back the money into the parent's estate.

One of the ways parents are creating written records of their intentions is by making statements in their Wills. This could be a simple statement in the Will confirming that they do or do not want the account or investment or property to go to the child as a true joint owner.

Note that the question of joint owner with right of survivorship does NOT affect husband and wife ownership. The comments I've made in this post are restricted to inter-generational ownership that is usually set up by the parent who mistakenly thinks he or she is simplifying the estate, or just wants help with the banking.

You can see how this area of estate administration is rife with disputes, misunderstandings and hard feelings between siblings. I've said repeatedly that joint assets between parent and child are rarely a good idea, and that is largely because people almost always fail to confirm their full intentions. If a parent just wants help dealing with the banking, then he or she should use a Power of Attorney and leave the joint titles for those who truly want that child to inherit that full asset.

1 comment:

  1. My husband and I owned a rental house that in 2006 we moved his parents into. At the time, his parents paid off the balance of the mortgage (which was approx. 50% of the then market value)from proceeds of there principal residence. We then added them to the title which now shows the 4 of us as joint owners. My husband is their only son and it is intended that he would inherit any investments (bank accounts) when both die. It is unlikely that we will keep the house and rent it unless the housing market is really bad. Therefore I have 3 questions:
    1. What is the tax consequense to my husband and I when both his parents die with regards to their 50% ownership of the house.
    2. If we are able to sell the house without having any rental income is the capital gains tax payable on our portion (50%)the difference between the market value upon death and the actual amount of the sale.
    3. If the house is sold before they die (they may have to move to assisted living) do we pay capital gains on our portion (50%) based on the increased value from when they became joint owners to what it gets sold for.
    4. If they wanted to transfer their portion of the property to us now (before they die or have to move to assisted living) but remain in the house is this advisable.

    Thank you


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