In a recent decision, the Privy Council considered whether money held in a joint bank account passes to the survivor upon the death of one of the accountholders, or whether the money goes to the deceased accountholder's estate. Whitlock and another v Moree  UKPC 44. The account holder who died, Lennard, had contributed all of the $190,000 in the account, while his friend Moree the joint account holder contributed nothing.
The two signed an application for the account which stated that any money in the account was their “joint property with the right of survivorship.” Lennard had been good friends with Moree, and Lennard also left Moree his house and his pets. Their close relationship seemed to indicate that Lennard intended to leave the money in the account to Moree, rather than have the money become part of Lennard's general estate held in trust by Moree.
The attorneys for Moree and Lennard's other beneficiaries all accepted that the legal question was whether Moree could show that it was Lennard's intention to give the money to Moree. Both, the Supreme Court of The Bahamas and the Court of Appeal decided the case based on this issue, but the two courts disagreed on the outcome. The Privy Council explains why, in its opinion, Lennard's intention is irrelevant.
First, Lord Briggs notes that determining whether a document – such as the account application – creates a “beneficial ownership” relationship between two people as to a piece of property depends only on interpretation of the document, not on the subjective intentions of the people signing the document. Second, when holders of a joint account like the one at issue here declare their interests in the money in the account in a document, then those declared interests should be the true interests of the account holders. Opening a joint account using an application stating that the money in it is the account holders' joint property does not result in the creation of an implied trust upon the death of one account holder. This is simply not what the account holders agreed. In other words, the document here does not leave Moree in the position of a trustee holding legal title to the money in trust for Lennard's estate without the right to use it for his own benefit.
The opinion concludes that the wording of the application for the bank account indicates that Moree should have not only legal title but beneficial use of the money. The application uses the phrases “Joint Tenancy”, “our joint property with the right of survivorship” and “if one of us dies, all money in the Account automatically becomes the property of the other account holder(s)”. All indicate that the survivor of the two account holders should have beneficial ownership of the money in the account. As a result, the Privy Council ruled in Moree's favor.
To find out more about jointly held property interests in The Bahamas, visit Gonsalves-Sabola Chambers online or call the office at +1 242 326 6400.