Legal Eagle: Having joint bank accounts in Jamaica

February 12, 2018

Thousands of Jamaicans hold joint bank accounts - some with family members, others with friends, and still some in professional and other capacities. Those who hold in professional capacities generally have no problems on the death of the other joint account holder, as there is usually sufficient notation at the bank to determine the ownership of the funds in the account. However, on most occasions, the problem arises with friends and family.

In Jamaica, like many other parts of the world, these cases are litigated from time to time. For instance, in 2009, the case of Clover Robinson v National Commercial Bank et al came before a judge of the Supreme Court who had to determine the right of a surviving joint account holder to funds in a joint bank account upon the death of the other account holder.

In the Clover Robinson case, the claimant relied on the contract or mandate signed with the bank at the opening of the account, which expressly provides that "monies standing to the credit of a joint account and all interest thereon shall be the joint property of the customers in whose name the joint account is held".

At the trial, the court also reviewed authorities, which made it clear that "when a joint account is stopped because of death of one of the parties, the doctrine of survivorship applies". This means that the balance in the account is transferred to the surviving parties.

Sometimes, the purpose of the joint account is to avoid estate duty, and in those circumstances, the funds in the account would revert to the estate, and by so doing, demonstrate that in exceptional cases, the mandate will not be upheld and the survivorship rule will have no effect. In this case, a resulting trust is established. This means that the surviving joint account holder now holds the sum in the account for the benefit of the beneficiaries of the deceased joint account holder's estate. This was the ruling of the Judge in the Supreme Court in Clover Robinson's case.

Clover Robinson, aggrieved with the decision in the Supreme Court, filed an appeal. The Court of Appeal, in its decision, made it clear that the entitlement to a beneficial interest to the funds in a joint account will depend on whether or not the principle of a resulting trust was displaced or rebutted. The Court of Appeal also said that the circumstances of each case must be examined to determine whether the deceased joint account holder had intended to make a gift to the surviving joint account holder. Therefore, circumstances surrounding the opening of the account are also very important.

Persons opening joint bank account must ensure that sufficient and clear notations are made in writing and signed by all the joint account holders at the opening of the account as to disposition of the balance in the account in the event of the death of one of the joint account holders. Otherwise, the surviving party may, at great expense, spend many years before the issue is resolved.

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