Joint Bank Account Holder Wholly Entitled to Asset

Laypersons are often unclear about the legal status of co-ownership, whether of land and property, or bank and building society accounts or other assets. At issue in a recent case was - who was beneficially entitled to the money held in a bank account which the deceased had put into the joint names of himself and a close friend

The Privy Council heard the appeal from Court of Appeal in the Bahamas[1].

What’s the background?
The testator was a wealthy businessman who was in his 90s when he died. By his will, he left his Nassau property to a close friend; various pecuniary legacies to friends and charity; and his residuary estate to three individuals (including his close friend who inherited the property and who was also one of executors).

A month after making his will, the testator and his close friend (who inherited the Nassau property) went to the bank for the purpose of joining the friend to the testator’s existing bank account/s. The bank’s written note indicted that this was to enable the friend to ‘pay utilities’. The bank’s application form stated:

“JOINT TENANCY: Unless otherwise agreed in writing, all money which is now or may later be credited to the Account (including all interest) is our joint property with the right of survivorship. That means that if one of us dies, all money in the Account automatically becomes the property of other account holder(s). In order to make this legally effective, we each assign such money to the other account holder (or the others jointly if there is more than one other account holder).”

At the date of his death a few months later, the account held $190,000. A month later, the friend joined his wife as a joint account holder. However, a dispute arose as to whether the friend held the money on resulting trust for the testator – or whether it was intended to be a gift to his friend.

The trial judge ruled that the purpose of joining the friend to the account was simply to enable him to pay the bills for the elderly businessman, but the Court of Appeal (Bahamas) disagreed: a combination of factors meant that the friend had discharged the burden of proving that the testator had intended to make a beneficial gift to him.

What did the Privy Council decide?
The Privy Council conducted a detailed analysis of the law on joint ownership of property, citing a number of previous authorities across various common law jurisdictions.

The Privy Council ruled that the joint account holder was fully entitled to the account on the testator’s death. It found that this was a case in which the two account holders of a joint account, by agreement with the bank, expressly set out (above their signatures), a declaration as to the beneficial interests in that joint account. On its true construction, the right of survivorship operated, “regardless who contributed the money to the credit of the account before that date”. No contrary agreement or later variation had been made.

[1] Whitlock and another v Moree (Bahamas) [2017] UKPC 44 (Privy Council Appeal No 0075 of 2016)



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