Legal Recourse When a Spouse Empties a Joint Bank Account

by Ciaran John ; Updated July 27, 2017

When you open a joint bank account with your spouse, the money that either of you deposit into the account belongs to you both. Your bank does not have keep track of who makes the deposits and who makes the withdrawals. You have little or no legal recourse against your bank or your spouse if your spouse decides to spend or withdraw all of the money in the account.

Joint Accounts

Most joint bank account owners have rights of survivorship, which means that either of you can withdraw money or close the account at any time, and when one owner dies, the other owner gains full control of the account. In some states, such as North Carolina, married people can open accounts as tenants by entirety. This type of joint account works in a similar manner to a survivorship account except for the fact that only married people can open accounts as tenants by entirety. Therefore, your spouse can empty the account without your consent.

Divorce

Couples often become embroiled in disputes over bank accounts during or prior to divorce proceedings. If you and your spouse plan to divorce, either one of you can withdraw all of the proceeds from your joint bank account and deposit the money into a new single-ownership account. However, when you take such action, you may hurt your chances of receiving a favorable settlement at the conclusion of the divorce proceedings. In many instances, divorce courts place a freeze on joint accounts during the actual divorce proceedings and only allow the account holders to make withdrawals to cover basic necessities. You and your spouse may find yourself in contempt of court if either of you deplete your account in violation of such a court order.

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Tenancy in Common

Some banks allow people to create joint tenancy-in-common accounts. While usually used by business owners rather than married couples, if you have such an account, your spouse cannot deplete or close a tenancy-in-common account without your consent. In these accounts, each account owner has a partial ownership stake, which means that checks require the signatures of both owners. You cannot get debit cards on these accounts, since such cards are issued to individuals. You can pursue legal action against your bank if it allows your spouse to deplete the account without your authorization. However, due to the liability issues involved, many banks simply refuse to open tenancy-in-common accounts.

Considerations

If you do not have a tenancy-in-common account and you are not involved in divorce proceedings, then you cannot take legal action against your bank for allowing your spouse to drain your joint account. You can take legal action against your spouse if you have some kind of contractual agreement pertaining to your financial matters that your spouse violated. However, in such instances, you would have to cover the court costs of taking your spouse to court and this would presumably further deplete your bank account balances.

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