Can Bank Accounts Have Beneficiaries?

By Rebecca Lake · July 03, 2023 · 9 minute read

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Can Bank Accounts Have Beneficiaries?

If you have a retirement account or a life insurance policy, you’re probably familiar with the process of naming a beneficiary, but did you know that bank accounts can have beneficiaries as well?

The point of designating beneficiaries is to specify who will inherit your assets when you die. When you open a new bank account, you may have the option to add one or more beneficiaries. You can name a beneficiary for a checking account, savings account, or money market account.

Naming beneficiaries to bank accounts is something you might consider as part of a broader estate plan. Learn more about this here, including:

•   What is a beneficiary?

•   Do bank accounts have beneficiaries?

•   What are the pros and cons of adding a beneficiary to a checking or savings account?

•   How do you add a beneficiary to a bank account?

•   What are POD accounts?

What Is a Beneficiary?

A beneficiary is someone who’s entitled to inherit assets from someone else. The types of assets that can allow you to name someone as beneficiary include:

•   Life insurance policies

•   401(k) plans and similar workplace retirement plans

•   Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs)

•   Trusts

•   Bank accounts

Primary beneficiaries have first claim to assets. Contingent beneficiaries can be named to inherit assets should the primary beneficiary die or not be able to be located.

Beneficiaries can be a person, organization, or entity. For example, you might name your spouse as the beneficiary of a life insurance policy while naming your favorite charity as beneficiary of a trust you’ve created.

Beneficiaries vs Writing a Will

A will is a legal document that allows you to specify how you’d like your assets to be distributed among your heirs after you pass away. You can also use a will to leave funeral or burial instructions or name a legal guardian for your minor children.

Wills can name beneficiaries who are to receive assets from your estate. State law determines who can and cannot be excluded as a will beneficiary. For example, disinheriting a spouse is usually prohibited but you might be able to exclude your children from your will.

Assets that have a designated beneficiary generally supersede a will. So, if you’ve named your spouse as beneficiary to your 401(k), for example, you wouldn’t be able to leave that asset to someone else in your will.

Should You Add a Beneficiary to Your Bank Account?

Can checking accounts have beneficiaries? Yes. Do you need to add a beneficiary to your bank account? It depends.

Naming a beneficiary for a bank account allows that person to inherit those assets once you pass away without having to go through probate. Probate is a legal process in which a deceased person’s estate is divided up among their heirs. Assets can be divided according to the terms of a will. If there isn’t a will, then state inheritance laws can determine what happens to the deceased’s estate.

Probate can be time-consuming and costly. Adding a beneficiary to a bank account allows them to sidestep all of that. Your beneficiary can collect the money in the account without a lengthy wait. They may need to verify their identity and provide a death certificate, but it’s a much simpler process than probate.

You might choose to add a beneficiary if you want to make sure that they’re able to access those assets right away. Your beneficiary designations for a bank account won’t affect your designations for life insurance policies, retirement accounts, or other assets.

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Steps for Adding a Beneficiary to Your Bank Account

Banks typically don’t require or perhaps even request that you add a beneficiary to an account. It’s a good idea to check with your bank first to find out if you can add a beneficiary to a checking account or savings account. If so, the bank should be able to tell you what you’ll need to do next to do so.

Typically, the process works something like this.

1. Decide which accounts will have a beneficiary

The first thing to consider is which accounts to name beneficiaries for. You might have a checking account, savings account, and money market account at the same bank, for instance. Since the accounts are separate, you’d have to decide which ones will have beneficiaries and whether the beneficiary for each one will be the same person.

You’ll need to tell the bank which bank account number or numbers you’re referencing when adding a beneficiary. It’s a good idea to double check the number to make sure you’re giving the right account information.

2. Choose your beneficiaries

Next, you’ll need to decide who will be the beneficiary for your bank accounts. If you’re married, that might be your spouse. If you’re unmarried or widowed, you might choose to name one of your children, another relative, or a close friend.

Keep in mind that you may not be able to name minor children as beneficiaries. If you’d like to ensure that your bank account goes to a minor child, you may need to first choose an adult to act as their custodian should something happen to you. You could then name the custodian as beneficiary on behalf of the children.

3. Update your beneficiary preferences

The actual process for naming a beneficiary to a checking or savings account will vary by bank. At some banks, it may be as simple as logging in to online banking, navigating to your account settings, and entering your beneficiary’s information. That may include their name, address, date of birth, and Social Security number.

Other banks may require you to submit a beneficiary designation form, either online or in person at a branch. Again, you’d need to provide the beneficiary’s identifying information to add them to your account.

Note that adding a beneficiary designation does not grant that person access to your account during your lifetime. They would only be able to access the money in the account upon your death.

Consider Creating a POD Account

A payable on death or POD account is a bank account that has a named beneficiary. That beneficiary is entitled to automatically receive the assets from the account when the original account owner passes away. They do not have access to the account during the primary account owner’s lifetime.

Creating a POD account allows your beneficiaries to bypass probate. You can name one or more beneficiaries for a payable on death account. In terms of how to create a POD account, you’d need to tell your bank that you either want to open a new account for that purpose or convert an existing account.

Keep in mind that if you need to change your beneficiaries later, the bank may require you to close the account and redeposit the money into a new POD account. A POD beneficiary designation will override instructions left in a will. When there are multiple beneficiaries to a payable on death account, assets in the account are split between them equally.

How Marriage Impacts POD Accounts

Marriage can add a wrinkle to your will or estate planning efforts if you’re creating a POD account. If you live in a community property state, your spouse would be entitled to half of the assets in the account, excluding ones you owned before the marriage or ones that you inherited.

Keep in mind that if you named your spouse as beneficiary to a bank account and you end up getting divorced, they would still be entitled to receive assets from the account. You’d need to contact your bank to update your POD beneficiary designations to make sure those assets where you want them to once you pass away.

Alternatives to Adding a Beneficiary to Your Bank Account

Adding one or more beneficiaries isn’t the only option for managing a checking account or savings account. You might also consider setting up a joint account with someone else or specifying how you want your bank accounts to be divided in your will. Setting up a joint bank account might be easier, though there are some pros and cons.

Opening a Joint Bank Account

Opening a joint bank account is something you might consider if you’d like the person you’d otherwise choose as a beneficiary to have access to the account while you’re alive. For example:

•   You might choose to set up a joint account with a spouse if you have a high level of financial trust between you.

•   If you’re unmarried, then you might choose to open a joint bank account with your adult child, a parent, or a sibling.

•   You might be asked to open a joint bank account with someone else if you’re assuming responsibility for managing their finances. For instance, an aging parent might want to set up a joint account so you can help them with managing bills.

Can you open a bank account for someone else? Yes, but only in limited situations. Generally, you can open a bank account for someone else if:

•   They’re a minor child.

•   They’ve granted you power of attorney.

Before opening a joint account, consider the relationship you have with the other person and how much control you’re comfortable allowing them to have. For instance, what if you’d like them to inherit the assets in your bank account but not be able to make withdrawals right now? You may be better off naming them as a beneficiary instead or setting up a POD account.

💡 Recommended: Joint Bank Accounts vs. Separate Bank Accounts in Marriage

The Takeaway

Do checking accounts have beneficiaries? Some of them do or can upon request. Whether you’d like to add a beneficiary to your account can depend on your financial and personal situation. In some cases, a POD or joint account might better suit your needs.

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What if there is no beneficiary on a bank account?

If there is no beneficiary on a bank account and the account holder dies, the assets in the account will be combined with other assets from the estate during probate. All assets, including bank accounts, would then be distributed according to the terms of a will or, if there is no will, state inheritance laws.

How many beneficiaries can you have on one bank account?

Banks can decide whether to limit the number of beneficiaries you can have on a bank account. When naming multiple beneficiaries, keep in mind that they’ll each be entitled to an equal share of those assets. If you’d rather divide the account up differently, you may want to leave it to your heirs in your will instead.

How does a beneficiary receive their money?

A bank account beneficiary will typically need to verify their identity and the death of the account owner before receiving any money from the account. The bank may cut them an official check for the account balance or transfer the money to their bank account electronically.

Photo credit: iStock/Alessandro Biascioli

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