The following is an editorial written by State Representative Tom Cochran (D-Mason). If you have questions about this commentary, please contact Rep. Cochran’s office by calling (517) 373-0587.

In 2006, the Governor’s Elder Abuse Task Force Report included a recommendation for financial institutions to better protect their customers from elder abuse by requiring a joint account disclosure. Elders are commonly encouraged by others to add another person (usually a relative) to their accounts which provides the other person with full access to the money in their account. While it can be helpful in many situations to have a family member help pay the bills, sometimes a relative or caregiver depletes the account for their own benefit.

In an effort to protect our state’s seniors, I, along with Representative Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) have introduced House Bills 5030, 5031 and 5032 that would require financial institutions (credit unions, savings banks, banks) to disclose certain terms and conditions of joint accounts before opening the account. These disclosures include:

• That each account holder would be the owner of the money in a joint account.

• That each joint account holder would have the authority to deposit or withdraw any or all of the money in a joint account.

• That if one of the owners of a joint account dies, the other owners would continue as the owners of that account and could still access the money.

• That money in a joint account may be subject to the claims of creditors of any joint account holder.

Currently, many financial institutions voluntarily share this information with customers opening a joint account. The bills would serve to standardize these practices across the state and make sure the above terms and conditions are made known to all patrons. Under current law, some individuals may not be aware that everyone on a joint account could potentially withdraw any amount of money from that account. Providing such information will allow the elderly to better prevent financial exploitation. Additionally, someone with the best of intentions may be unaware that he or she can put an elderly relative at risk due to unresolved debt to creditors. Making all parties aware that creditors could potentially have a claim to money in a joint account is a common-sense measure to ensure families are making the best choice for their loved ones.

This simple notification will help families make more informed decisions about their financial futures. The legislation gives financial institutions’ the ability to present this information to their customers in a way that best fits their daily practices. Further, all three bills would afford financial institutions a year to come into compliance, ample time to implement the specified changes.

Taking care of an aging relative is an opportunity for families to grow and learn together in new ways. It can also be a challenge to become educated on a wide range of legal, financial, and medical issues to enable us to best serve our loved ones. Helping to make financial decisions a little easier to understand means that families can spend less time poring over financial records and legal documents and more time enjoying each other’s company and making new, lasting memories together.