Separation And Joint Bank Accounts

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“What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine” …but what about the joint bank accounts?

Most people who are married or in committed relationships intertwine their finances. Typically, this takes the form of joint ownership of the family home, motor vehicles and of course the joint bank account (or credit card).

While most people realise there is a process to divide assets and work out who receives what, in our experience there is often confusion regarding the law surrounding accessing jointly held cash.

Common questions people ask family lawyers are:

  • Can I take my half from the joint bank account?
  • Can I take all of it?
  • He/she has transferred it to their account, but I know the banking passwords – can I take it back?
  • How can I stop him/her accessing the joint account?

What’s ours is mine…

When people co-own a bank account both parties are equally entitled to access all of the money i.e. they don’t own half each. They each own the full amount.

This means that whoever gets to the bank first (figuratively speaking – probably the computer first) can legally clean out the joint account.

In this situation it would be necessary for the party who didn’t take the money to take further steps to protect their interests. Neither the bank nor the Police would bear any responsibility to rectify the situation.

Fortunately, however the Family Law Act 1975 does contain remedies and provide Judges with power to address this situation on an interim, or final basis.

For example, if someone was to transfer money to their own account from the joint account, the Court would be able to make Orders, such as, for some or all of the money to be paid to the other person, restrain a person from further dealing with the money, or Order that it be paid into a trust account pending the final determination of all of the issues.

What’s yours is mine…

It is also not uncommon for married couples or people in de facto relationships or other committed relationships to share passwords, pin numbers or banking details (their banks would be angry if they found out).

We have also encountered situations where some people regard being married, or in a de facto relationship (particularly for a long time) as granting equal rights to property. This is not the case.

Being married or in a relationship does not convey property rights.

People may have a common use of property, but ultimately if property is not jointly owned it generally belongs to one of them.

During the relationship it may have been ok to use credit cards, bank accounts or make bank transfers from your partners account but only because this was impliedly or expressly authorised.

If there is no authorisation from the owner, then accessing funds in the above manner may well be stealing, and land you in hot water with the police.

As a general rule, if you’re separated do not use the ex-partners cards or accounts unless there is an express authorisation (in writing).

What’s mine is yours…

The Family Law Act 1975 empowers the Court to adjust interests in property provided the Court does “justice and equity” i.e. the court can take what’s yours and make it his or hers.

The Court also has a number of powers (alluded to above) that can assist in making sure property that may be distributed between the parties to the relationship, is protected until such time as all of the matters are considered.

There is also steps that people can take themselves to avoid Court, unnecessary costs and inflaming the situations. Some examples are:

  • Contact the bank and see if they have an ability to “freeze” an account at the behest of one party;
  • Have a discussion with your ex-partner. Ask them whether they will agree to splitting the funds a certain way, or whether they will agree to having the money deposited to a neutral third party such as a solicitor’s trust account, to be held for both parties.

If in doubt and before taking action that you feel may not be right or may likely inflame your situation, please contact a family law solicitor at Hooper Family Lawyers at Victoria Point or Coolangatta on 3207 7663 for advice.

Alternatively for more information we have many helpful resources on our website.

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