Joint bank accounts: what happens if you split up?

If you and your partner have a joint bank account, make sure you let your bank know as soon as possible that you’re splitting up.

If you don’t, and your partner runs up debts on the account, as your name is also on the account, you could be asked to repay what they owe if they refuse to.

Banks should take reasonable steps to help couples manage joint accounts if they’re separating, or if there is a dispute. This means that if you ring your bank or go into your local branch and say you’re in dispute, they:

  • Should offer to convert the account to one where both of you have to agree any transactions, or
  • Offer to freeze the account. If you go down this route you’ll need to first work out how any regular outgoings will continue to be paid. You might, for example, agree with your ex to take on certain bills whilst they assume responsibility for others.

Bear in mind that if you freeze an account, both of you have to agree to unfreeze it. That means that if your partner wants to make your life difficult, they can refuse to agree to unfreeze an account and you wouldn’t be able to access any of the money that is in it.

However, banks’ procedures can vary, so it’s important to ask your bank what it does in the event that a couple with a joint financial account splits up. As a general rule, if a customer tells the bank there is a dispute, they will be asked if they’d like to convert the account to ‘both to sign’, where both account holders must give authority for any transactions to be made, or if they want the account to be temporarily frozen.

If you’re finding it difficult to reach agreement with your ex over what to do with your joint bank accounts, it can be a good idea to seek mediation or, if you’re unable to resolve things that way, professional legal advice. For more information on mediation, or to find your nearest mediation service, visit the National Family Mediation website. Alternatively, you can find a solicitor with the help of Resolution, a membership organisation for professionals who work with separating couples. All members commit to taking a non-confrontational approach to help couples resolve their issues.

Watch out

If you and your husband or partner are splitting up and you are worried about a joint account:

  • Keep a record of phone calls, emails to your bank, so that you have them available if something goes wrong and can demonstrate that you notified them of the split.
  • Be aware that both of you have to agree to unfreeze an account. If your partner is unlikely to agree to this, freezing it in the first place may not be the best option.
  • Find out whether changing the way the account operates from ‘either to sign’ to ‘both to sign’ may mean that telephone and online banking are either suspended or withdrawn. If not, find out if/how you can revoke access to these.
  • Make sure that you won’t be held liable for any transactions after you’ve told the bank about the dispute (except for cheques that may have been written but not paid in/cashed). The bank shouldn’t insist that plastic cards are returned before transactions are blocked.

Closing a joint account

Banks will normally only let one person’s name come off the account if they have received confirmation in writing. This can make life difficult if your ex won’t write to the bank. If your bank doesn’t have up to date contact details for him or her, they may not accept address details from you due to ‘data protection laws’.

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