Funds held in joint bank accounts are subject to the arrangements set out in the opening documents, even if one of the holders subsequently dies, the Privy Council has ruled.
In Whitlock v Moree, it considered an appeal from the Court of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas. The case concerned a joint bank account held by two men – Mr Lennard and Mr Moree. The entirely of the funds in the account – $190,000 – were provided by Mr Lennard.
The two account holders signed an agreement stating that
“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.”
This mean that if one of the two men died, the other would inherit their share. Mr Moree insisted that the implications of the account had been fully explained to Mr Lennard, a successful but retired businessman who was already in his 90s at that time. The latter died just a few months after the account was set up.
A month later, Mr Moree want to the bank where the account was held and reframed it as joint account held by him and his wife. He also informed the executor of Mr Lennard’s estate about the bank account.
A lengthy legal dispute followed, between Mr Moree and other beneficiaries of the estate, over the question of whether or not he should inherit the account or whether it should be regarded as part of Mr Lennard’s estate, since he had provided all the original funds. The dispute eventually crossed the Atlantic, reaching the Privy Council. This is a body of advisors to the Queen. It has multiple functions, including hearing appeals from independent Commonwealth states like The Bahamas.
In a majority ruling, the Council found in favour of Mr Moree. Delivering the lead judgement, Lord Briggs declared that:
“…where two or more holders of a joint account all sign an account opening document (or separately sign identical documents) which, on their true construction, declare or set out their respective beneficial interests in [entitlement to] the property constituted by the account (loosely, the money in the account), then those are the beneficial interests of the account holders, pending any subsequent variation of them [barring change in the arrangements] by agreement or otherwise, and an examination of the subjective intentions of the account holders, or of those of them who place money in the joint account, is neither relevant nor permissible.”
The account opening documents constituted a legally valid statement of entitlement to the funds in the account and so the appeal was dismissed.
Read the full ruling here.