I recall one of the first times I saw the acronym JTWROS next to an account holder's name on an investment statement and thought that it was a secret classification code used by financial institutions. I ignored it and did not realize the merit of the JTWROS acronym and what it signifies.
What does JTWROS mean?
JTWROS stands for joint tenants with right of survivorship. In simple terms, this means that all of the account holders (joint names on the account) have legal and beneficial ownership of the assets in the account. Typically, if one of the joint account holders is to die, then all of the assets in the account are owned by the surviving account holder(s). Accordingly, the deceased’s name will be removed from the joint account and the account will be in the name of the surviving account holder(s).
How many holders can be on a JTWROS account?
I’m not aware of any limits on the number of JTWROS account holders. My understanding is that if one of the account holders dies, the surviving account holders will receive the assets in the account in equal shares. There is no ability to specify the percentage share received by each surviving account holder. In the event there are no surviving account holders, the assets in the account would form part of deceased’s estate and be distributed in accordance with their Will.
Are there downsides to JTWROS accounts?
There are risks associated with JTWROS accounts. By establishing a JTWROS account, the beneficial owner needs to realize that they are losing control of assets in the account. For example, any of the account holders can provide instructions on the account, trade on the account , make account withdrawals, or liquidate the account without notifying the other account holders.
Another risk is that the whole account may be exposed to creditors and/or family law claims of any one of the joint account holders. Additionally (if the account is not with your spouse) there can be income tax implications on the establishment and income earned in the account.
What are the benefits of JTWROS accounts?
In my world of Trust and Estate Planning, I observe that JTWROS accounts are usually established to avoid probate fees and ease the estate administration burden. It can take months or even years to access assets that are part of a probate and estate management process. Meanwhile, with JTWROS accounts, assets that pass through the right of survivorship are not subject to probate fees, and the surviving account holder(s) never lose access to the assets.
The bottom line
JTWROS has its merits if it is used properly. It is commonly used, because it is simple to implement and a convenient approach to asset ownership. Before establishing a JTWROS account, the beneficial owner should understand the risks and pitfalls associated with this account type. They need to critically evaluate if they are really solving their problem or creating new problems. As outlined, there are complications for taxation, creditor protection, rights of use, and even Estate Planning. A better result might be available via a limited power of attorney or a trust.
The one thing you should always do: consult with your tax and legal professionals.