How to tie the bank account knot

Belinda Beresford

You’ve taken a deep breath and made the leap. You’ve made a commitment. You’re sharing the toothpaste, the washing-up and the telephone account.
Now you’ve decided you want a joint bank account, either to pay the household bills or so you can truly express the unity of your relationship.

True joint bank accounts, where both partners have equal rights and responsibilities, are not available in South Africa. One partner can run an account and give the other signing powers. But the primary account holder has full responsibility and can revoke or extend the partner’s signing powers at will.

The assumption is often that the man would be the primary account holder. The thought of limited signing powers on their husbands’ accounts makes many women bridle, as it brings to mind the days when wives needed their lord and master’s approval to open bank accounts.

But the convention can be turned on its head. It’s equally possible for the woman to be the primary account holder, in which case she has to agree to her husband having signing powers.

Some banks offer special facilities for partners. FNB has the Tandem account, which provides for couples to open two separate accounts, but one will receive up to 50% discount on banking charges. Standard Bank’s upper-income banking packages, such as the Prestige plan, offer similar options.

Usually, but not always, banks are willing to define as couples pairings less traditional than a heterosexual married couple. Standard Bank says permutations defined as “partners” include same-sex couples and LAMs (living as marrieds).

Several of the big banks say they are looking at ways to create joint accounts, which are generally considered a good marketing opportunity. Such accounts would allow partners to pool their resources and share banking costs without having to do running calculations of who’s paid for what.

One option available to couples is a business account, which can be run jointly. Such accounts fall under a different area of law, which determines the distribution of assets and responsibility.

The problems surrounding joint accounts seem to be legal ones, particularly what would happen to the account if one partner died or became insolvent. In the United Kingdom this would see the other partner inheriting the account, under the “doctrine of survivorship”.

In South Africa there is no such legal regulation, however, and the bank could be faced with conflicting demands from the other partner and the executor of an estate or the trustees of a bankrupt estate.

The Banking Council says the legal uncertainties about who owns what in an account can be exacerbated by a falling-out between partners, such as a divorce, especially if a couple is married in community of property.

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