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Published November 19, 2021

What a Joint Bank Account Is and How It Works

A joint account is a bank account that can be legally accessed by more than one person. All parties are equally responsible for fees or debt incurred.

If you have financial goals or expenses in common with another person, a joint bank account is something to consider. But before opening a joint account, make sure you understand how it’s different from an individual account and weigh the potential benefits and drawbacks.

» MORE: How to open a bank account

What is a joint account?

A joint account is a bank account that belongs to two or more people. It has most if not all of the characteristics of a standard bank account; the ability to perform banking transactions, such as making deposits and withdrawals, writing cheques and transferring funds is shared by multiple people.

Joint bank accounts are a popular option for couples because it’s easier to track shared expenses and savings goals. They can also be useful for parents, older children, business partners, or roommates.

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How does a joint account work?

A joint account gives all account holders equal access to any funds it holds, so they can each make withdrawals, pay bills and transfer money. For example, a couple might use a joint chequing account to pay shared expenses such as a mortgage payment and utility bills, or use a joint savings account to stash money for a future vacation.

All people listed on a joint account share full responsibility for the account. If one person overdrafts the account, all account holders can be held responsible for resulting fees or debt that accumulates. Similarly, one account holder could withdraw all the money, even without the consent of other account holders, and there would be no legal recourse. That’s why it’s vital to only open a joint account with someone you trust and have a robust agreement about how you’ll use it.

» MORE: Common Canadian bank fees and charges

Types of joint accounts

Chequing and savings accounts are the most common joint accounts. Many traditional banks, online-only banks and credit unions offer joint savings and chequing accounts.

Pros and cons of a joint account

Pros

  • Makes it easier to manage household expenses and bills.
  • Creates transparent financial management.
  • Can help with estate planning.

Cons

  • All account holders are equally responsible for any debts or fees incurred.
  • Financial transactions and bank statements will be accessible by all account holders.
  • No recourse if one account holder withdraws all the money without permission.
  • Could be problematic if the relationship between account holders deteriorates.

What happens to a joint account in case of death or divorce?

What happens after the death of a joint account holder depends on the terms of the banking agreement. If the terms grant right of survivorship, the funds in the joint account transfer to the surviving account holders, such as the person’s spouse or children. However, if there is no such agreement, the funds may become part of the joint account holder’s estate, which can become very complicated.

In Quebec, joint accounts are frozen until the account holder’s estate is settled, so even their spouse isn’t able to access those funds.

If joint account holders divorce, the account may be dissolved and the assets divided as part of the divorce settlement.

Alternatives to a joint account

Some financial institutions may allow you to add an authorized user to a bank account. This person, sometimes referred to as a secondary signer or convenience signer, may then have the ability to make deposits and withdrawals, but they wouldn’t have the same legal rights or responsibilities as a joint account holder.

Likewise, some banks may allow you to name a beneficiary for your individual account. This person wouldn’t have any access to your account or funds while you’re alive, but would receive those funds in the event of your death.

Depending on the situation, a power of attorney may also be an alternative to a joint bank account. A power of attorney is a legal document in which a person gives someone else control over their finances and property while they are still alive. Like opening a joint account it’s important to make sure you’re choosing someone who is reliable and trustworthy before assigning power of attorney.

About the Author

Sandra MacGregor
Sandra MacGregor

Sandra MacGregor has been writing about personal finance, investing and credit cards for over a decade. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications like the New York Times, the UK Telegraph, the Washington Post, Forbes.com and the Toronto Star. You can follow her on Twitter at @MacgregorWrites.

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