Think Twice Before Choosing Joint Ownership

June 13, 2013

There are DIY legal document sites on the Internet that sell generic fill-in-the-blanks legal documents including last wills. Another type of do-it-yourself estate planning involves the use of joint ownership. It is possible to add a co-account holder to your brokerage and/or bank accounts. If you do this the co-owner would be the only owner of the assets in these accounts at the time of your passing. You could instruct this individual to distribute this remainder to other people of your choosing. Voilà, you have an estate plan in place (or so the story goes).
There are difficulties with this strategy of joint ownership. Clearly you are going to choose a joint owner that you think you can trust. Be that as it may, you have no guarantees regarding what this person does with the money after you pass away. He or she may not agree with your inheritance ideas. As a result individuals that you care about may ultimately be disinherited. There is also the matter of creditors. If your co-owner was to accrue debt his or her creditors could seek to attach or lien property that is held jointly. The same is true of anyone who may be suing the co-owner for one reason or another. In the case of divorce a departing spouse could target these funds as well. Then there is the issue of a loss of the full step up in basis of appreciated assets.
Joint ownership is not a truly viable alternative to a properly constructed estate plan. Discuss these matters with a qualified estate planning attorney to be sure that your wishes become a reality after you pass away.

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