Privy Council Decision: Beneficial Ownership of Joint Accounts
The Privy Council recently handed down a decision in the case of Whitlock, et al. v Moree  UKPC 44 which has profound implications for joint-holders of bank accounts. Financial institutions, particularly private and commercial banks, and their clients are strongly advised to take note.
Key Principle Emanating from the Case:
- Where two or more persons sign account opening documents which contain a statement regarding the beneficial ownership of the funds on the account, that statement is determinative and conclusive of the beneficial ownership of the funds on the account.
Mr. Lennard and Mr. Moree were joint-holders of a bank account established solely with funds contributed by Mr. Lennard. Shortly after the account was opened, Mr. Lennard died. Before his death, Mr. Lennard executed a Will naming Mr. Moree as one of three residuary beneficiaries of his estate. After his death, an action was brought in the Supreme Court of The Bahamas by the other two residuary beneficiaries, seeking a declaration that the funds on the account were held by Mr. Moree on trust for all of the residuary beneficiaries and did not pass to Mr. Moree alone by right of survivorship.
The Supreme Court held that the funds were held on trust for Mr. Lennard’s estate as Mr. Moree had not proven that Mr. Lennard intended to make a gift of the funds to him. The Court of Appeal, on the other hand, found in favour of Mr. Moree.
On final appeal, the Privy Council determined that the case turned exclusively on the account opening documents which included the following statement:
- JOINT TENANCY: Unless otherwise agreed in writing, all the 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 the 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).
The Privy Council held that where holders of a joint account have, by an agreement with the bank to which they are both parties, expressly declared that the beneficial owner of the balance of funds on the account shall be the survivor of them in the event of the death of the other account holder(s), such a statement would be conclusive. This would be so regardless of who contributed the funds on the account. The Privy Council also considered that such a statement could only be displaced where it could be shown that a contrary agreement or later variation of the agreement between the parties and the bank exists.
The Privy Council’s ruling in this case underscores the need for financial institutions to draw their clients’ attention to statements in account documents concerning the beneficial ownership of joint accounts. If the intention of the client is merely to add a signatory without granting that signatory a beneficial interest in the funds held, options such as a limited power of attorney or letter to the financial institution, signed by all joint-holders setting out the beneficial ownership of the funds, should be considered.
For more information, contact Kamala Richardson.
The information contained in this bulletin is provided for the general interest of our readers, but is not intended to constitute legal advice. Clients and the general public are encouraged to seek specific advice on matters of concern. This bulletin can in no way serve as a substitute in such cases.
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