What does “payable on death” mean?

POD bank accounts can help you avoid probate

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What happens to the money in your bank account, your stocks, bonds, and other investments  when you die? Whether it's a savings account, brokerage account, or something else, you might be able to make the account payable on death (POD) or transferable on death (TOD) to a beneficiary of your choosing.

Payable-on-death accounts are an important part of estate planning, since they don’t go through probate, or the process of proving a will and distributing assets to your heirs.

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Key Takeaways

  • POD and TOD accounts require valid beneficiary designations

  • Pay or transfer on death accounts are not subject to probate

  • These accounts will pay out or transfer directly to the beneficiary

What is a payable-on-death-account?

Payable-on-death accounts, or transfer-on-death accounts, refer to any financial account with a designated beneficiary. The named beneficiary will receive these assets once the account holder dies. You might also hear a POD account referred to as a bank account trust, Totten trust account, or even casually as a "poor man's trust." (A POD bank account is recognized by the FDIC as an informal revocable trust.) 

Many people have accounts that can be set up as payable on death, but they may not know it. Examples of payable-on-death (POD) accounts are:

  • Checking accounts

  • Savings accounts

  • Certificates of deposit (CDs)

  • Money market accounts

Life insurance also functions like a payable-on-death account, since the death benefit gets paid to your beneficiaries after you die.

The difference between POD and TOD accounts

Some accounts technically transfer ownership — rather than pay out the funds — to a designated beneficiary upon the account holder’s death. These accounts are called transfer-on-death (TOD) accounts and some examples include:

  • Stocks

  • Bonds

  • Retirement accounts, like traditional and Roth IRAs

How to set up a payable-on-death account

Bank accounts are not automatically payable or transferable on death. To make the money in an account payable on death, you need to create a beneficiary designation. The financial institution (bank, credit union, retirement plan provider, or broker) who holds the money or assets may let you assign a POD or TOD beneficiary online through their website, but if not you’ll have to physically fill out and sign a paper form and return it to them. 

You can name multiple beneficiaries, and even a backup beneficiary, to your POD account and are usually allowed to change them, too. (Remember to periodically check and update who your beneficiaries are, especially if you experience a big life event like getting divorced or having a child.)

After setting you a POD account you should take care not to include it in your will since it’s handled separate to avoid confusion after you die. 

→ Read the complete list of what you should never put in your will

If you don’t make your bank accounts payable on death, the assets become part of the estate, and if someone dies intestate the court will determine who inherits. 

Claiming a POD account

You don’t need an executor to claim a payable-on-death account. If you’re the named beneficiary of a POD bank account, you can claim it by providing a certified copy of the death certificate to the bank.

If it is a joint account, meaning there is more than one owner, then a POD beneficiary cannot claim the money until all of the account owners have died.

→ Related article: What to do when someone dies

Payable-on-death accounts and taxes

Beneficiaries of a payable-on-death account may have to pay inheritance tax if it is levied in their state.

Payable-on-death accounts are included when calculating the value of a deceased person’s estate, which means that POD and TOD accounts can add to the gross estate and trigger estate taxes if you die with holdings over the exemption limit — $11.7 million in 2021 (increasing to $12.06 million in 2022).

Pros and cons of payable-on-death accounts

Payable-on-death accounts are a convenient part of an estate plan because they can be passed along to your loved ones with relative ease. By contrast, using a will to leave an inheritance for someone can take time while your affairs and estate are being settled, which can be further delayed if there are disputes among your heirs and someone contests a will.

→ Learn more about designating a beneficiary to an account vs using a will to transfer assets

While POD accounts can be useful, they have some disadvantages and shouldn’t be your sole method of distributing assets to your loved ones. For one thing, a POD account can’t restrict a beneficiary's use of the funds or account holdings. If you are worried about how someone will spend their inheritance, you might consider opening a trust, a separate entity with its own set of rules that can govern how the money is used.

Additionally, a POD or TOD account is only effective if the account holder dies; it would not transfer or pay out any money to someone if you end up in a coma. If you want someone to be able to access your finances for any reason, you'll need to grant them financial power of attorney.

A strong estate plan incorporates POD accounts and a will. Policygenius can help you create a strong will with easy step-by-step instructions.