Close this search box.

Joint Tenancy Bank Accounts

Print Article
Joint tenancy bank account

Do you have a bank account with another person listed as a joint owner? You probably have a joint tenancy bank account. Does that mean that the other owner could empty the account? For that matter, could you?

What is a joint tenancy bank account?

How do you know if you hold your bank account as a joint tenant? Generally speaking, if you asked the bank to put two or more names on the account, it will be in joint tenancy. The most important part of joint tenancy is the right of survivorship. So if your account title includes that phrase, you almost certainly have a joint tenancy account.

You might also see “JT” or even “JTROS” in the account title. Those abbreviations mean joint tenancy or joint tenancy with right of survivorship. That’s a clear indication that your account is a joint tenancy account.

“Right of survivorship” means, simply, that when one joint tenant dies the remaining account owner (or owners) now own the deceased person’s share. Imagine that Arthur, Brenda and Carol set up a JT account. When Carol dies, Arthur and Brenda now own the account as joint tenants. Later, when Arthur dies, Brenda is the sole owner of the account.

But Carol’s will left everything to her son, Dave

Sorry, Dave. You won’t get any part of the account that was held in joint tenancy. That’s why we keep saying that people need to pay attention to account titles — and beneficiary designations, too, for that matter.

The joint account rules are often referred to as “nonprobate transfer” rules. That’s because they are used precisely because they avoid the probate process. But that also means that they avoid the terms of the owner’s will, too.

Remember Arthur and Brenda? When Carol died, they would understand her wishes and give Dave “her” one-third of the account, right? No — not in our experience.

What about rights while all joint tenants are alive?

Let’s change the question a little bit. Suppose that our three owners of the joint tenancy bank account are all still alive. Carol put most of the money into the account. She put Arthur’s and Brenda’s names on the account for her convenience. That way they can pay bills without having Carol sign every check.

What happens if Arthur goes to the bank, closes the account and moves it to another bank in his name alone? Maybe Arthur is worried that Brenda is thinking of doing the same thing. Maybe he doesn’t think Brenda is entitled to inherit anything if Carol should die. Or maybe Arthur is just a thief.

Can Carol get her money back? Can Brenda insist on the account being restored?

Arizona law does address these questions. he “nonprobate transfers” section of the probate code includes a section on bank accounts. It says that Arthur, Brenda and Carol own the account in proportion to their contributions. There is a presumption, though, that they contributed equally. If Carol wants to sue Arthur for return of the money, she will have to prove that she contributed most or all of it.

One key element of the nonprobate transfer laws: Carol almost certainly has no claim against her bank for letting Arthur empty the account.

A recent court case from another state

We recently read about a Michigan Court of Appeals decision dealing with these issues. Of course, Michigan law is different from Arizona’s approach. The facts of the case, however, are absolutely commonplace.

Robert Lewis and Carol Rosebrook were a couple for almost a quarter-century, though they never got married. They had three bank accounts in their joint names. Virtually all of the money came from Mr. Lewis, but Ms. Rosebrook was named as a joint tenant and actually signed checks on the accounts from time to time.

When Mr. Lewis became ill, the couple split up and agreed to put everything on hold while they sorted out their respective positions. Meanwhile, Ms. Rosebrook visited the three banks and withdrew about $255,000 from the joint accounts.

Mr. Lewis’s daughter sued Ms. Rosebrook on his behalf. Mr. Lewis gave a deposition in which he said that he had not intended to make a gift of the money, and that he had not given permission to Ms. Rosebrook to take all of the money. Shortly after his testimony, Mr. Lewis died.

The Michigan probate court ruled that the couple had equal rights to the accounts. When Ms. Rosebrook emptied the accounts, she was just exercising her rights as a joint tenant.

The Michigan Court of Appeals disagreed. While Mr. Lewis was still alive, ruled the appellate judges, Ms. Rosebrook had a duty not to injure her joint tenant’s interests. The appellate court ordered the probate court to reconsider. Ms. Rosebrook would have to return one-half of the money to Mr. Lewis’s estate. Estate of Lewis v. Rosebrook, July 16, 2019.

What about Arizona’s law?

Would the same result have been reached under Arizona’s law on joint tenancy accounts? No.

Most likely, a lawsuit brought during Mr. Lewis’s life would have resulted in him recovering all of the accounts. If, in fact, Ms. Rosebrook did not contribute anything to the accounts, she might not have any interest in the balances. If Mr. Lewis’s testimony about the reason for setting up the joint tenancy accounts was to be believed, Ms. Rosebrook would probably be ordered to return all of the money.

Of course, the court might not believe Mr. Lewis’s explanation. And if the action had not been brought during Mr. Lewis’s life, the “right of survivorship” aspect of the joint tenancy accounts would probably have overridden any claim.

What’s the lesson? Be very, very careful about establishing joint tenancy bank accounts. Discuss any accounts, their titles and any beneficiary designations, with the lawyer who prepares your estate plan. Unintended consequences abound.

Stay up to date

Subscribe to our Newsletter to get our takes on some of the situations families, seniors, and individuals with disabilities find themselves in. These posts help guide you in the decision making process and point out helpful tips and nuances to take advantage of. Enter your email below to have our entries sent directly to your inbox!

Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

Famous people's wills

Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.