Children don’t have unrestricted use of bank accounts. Nor are they free to open bank accounts on their own. To do that, they need an adult’s involvement. The role of adults (usually the parents) is to decide what type of account would be best for the child. They also decide who can have access to the account.

The rules governing who can operate an account are set out in a document called an account mandate (also known as an account signing authority). An account mandate spells out who has access to an account and how that access will work. Parents may decide they alone will have access to the account. Or they may decide to operate the account jointly with the child. Or they may choose to give the child (depending on age) sole access.

We sometimes receive complaints from parents concerned that their child has been able to access an account without their knowledge or authority. We also receive complaints from one parent that the other (usually estranged) parent is operating their child’s account in a way the first parent does not approve of. In such cases, we check the account mandate because it records the parent or parents’ intentions at the time of the account’s opening about how the account is to be used.

Understanding clearly who has signing authority is vital to avoid a child or parent operating an account (or spending the funds in it) in a way that is contrary to everyone’s expectations at the time the account was opened. 

Types of children’s accounts

Banks offer accounts geared specifically to children (Children are deemed minors until the age of 18, when they become adults). Such accounts have different restrictions about control of the account. The restrictions are usually related to a child’s age.

A parent will generally operate an account for a very young child (say, under seven). As the child gets older, the bank’s terms and conditions usually allow a wider range of activities, such as making withdrawals, setting up internet banking and getting a debit card. Children closer to adult age typically can open and manage their own savings accounts, do internet and phone banking and use ATMs to access their accounts.

Parents can also open a standard savings account in a child’s name, but with themselves as sole signatories of the account. They can also open an account, with themselves and the child as joint account holders. Finally, they can even open what is, in effect, a kind of trust account: an account in their names (allowing them full access to the funds in it), but on the understanding those funds are to be used for the benefit of the child. 

Banks' obligations

Banks must give accurate – and sufficient – information to parents about the types of children’s account they offer so parents can make an informed decision about which type of account will best suit their needs.

Banks have the same obligations to under-18 customers as they do to adult customers: they must be fair and reasonable in their dealings and must act on customers’ instructions in accordance with the account mandate. 

Ownership of money in a child’s account

In general, the account holder owns the funds in an account. Therefore:

  • If an account is in a child’s name, the child owns the funds.
  • If a parent and a child are joint account holders, the parent and child are joint owners of the funds.
  • If a parent is a signatory to an account, but not an account holder, the parent does not own the money (although he or she has control over how the account is operated while still a signatory).
  • A child who is the sole account holder can, on reaching 18, change or remove the signatories and operate the account alone. 

Complaints about children’s accounts

Most complaints we receive are about who controls or has access to accounts. Typical complaints include: 

  • A parent has asked a bank to set up a children’s account in a way that prevents a child from accessing the account on his or her own, but the child has nonetheless been able to withdraw money.
  • A bank has not given a parent good advice about the best way to set up a children’s account, and the child or other parent has used the funds in the account for purposes other than those the first parent had in mind when setting up the account.
  • A bank has allowed one parent, following a relationship breakdown, to remove the other parent from the account mandate, or withdraw the money in the child’s account, or close the account.

When parents complain that, contrary to their intentions, a child has been able to access an account and spend the money in it, the problem is usually either that:

  • the account mandate was set up to allow the parents or the child to operate the account – a fact the parents were unaware of or had forgotten, or
  • the bank failed to set up the account properly or allowed withdrawals to be made contrary to the account mandate. 

In looking into such complaints, we check:

  • the information the parents gave the bank when setting up the account
  • the account’s terms and conditions
  • the account mandate. 

(We conduct the same checks when one parent complains that the other has withdrawn funds from a child’s account or closed the account.)

Sometimes we will find that a bank set up an account that did not correspond with what the parents said they needed.

Compensation

Parents sometimes regard funds withdrawn and spent by a child contrary to their wishes as “lost” money, and they seek full reimbursement. However, we do not necessarily regard money spent by a child as a loss if the account is in the child’s name. In depositing money into the child’s account, the child becomes the owner of the funds.

There are, however, situations where we may find that the money spent by a child is a loss.  For example, when:

  • The bank did not set up the account appropriately.
  • The child is the account owner, but is not authorised to operate it.
  • The parents told the bank they were putting their own money into the child’s account.
  • The money was to be used for a specific purpose. 

In addition, we can consider compensation for any stress and inconvenience the parents suffer from receiving inadequate or incorrect advice from the bank when the account was set up. 

As a parent, it is important to check the account mandate is recorded accurately according to your instructions.

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CASE 1

Bank error led to child withdrawing $3000

Hana and Tony wanted to open an account for their 14-year-old son, and told the bank they wanted to limit the amount he could withdraw from it. The bank said a trust account would best suit their needs. The account's terms and conditions clearly stated that a parent or guardian of any child under 15 had to sign all deposit and withdrawal slips unless the parent or guardian gave the bank an indemnity allowing the child to access the account. On the basis of this information, Hana and Tony opened a trust account without providing an indemnity.

CASE 2

Bank settles over series of complaints

Kiri approached the bank for a loan to buy a car. She did not qualify for a personal loan, but her personal banker matched the promotional credit card interest rate offered by a competing bank of 4.99 per cent. He said the bank would also apply this low rate to both her existing credit card balance and the $3,000 she needed to buy a car if she withdrew the money as a cash advance. This second part of the offer would last for six months. Kiri asked what the interest rate would be at the end of the six months. She said she was told she could simply apply to extend the promotional rate for another six months.

CASE 3

Need for mother's signature unaffected by name change

David and Sarah opened an account for their daughter when she was a baby. The account was in the child’s name, but the signatures of both parents were needed to operate it. Years later they separated, and Sarah became known as Tani.

Deceased customers' accounts

A bank will freeze a deceased customer’s individual accounts when notified of the death. This includes transactional accounts, term deposits, credit cards and loans.

Banks won’t necessarily know that a customer has died. Indeed, it is more likely – and should be assumed – they don’t know. Therefore, it is important to notify the bank as soon as possible. Anyone can notify the bank but typically this responsibility would fall on the next of kin or the estate representatives. The bank may ask for identification from the person notifying the bank as well as a copy of the death certificate.

Instructions

A bank can take instructions about a deceased person’s accounts only from someone authorised to act on behalf of the deceased’s estate. As well, it can give information about the accounts only to those entitled to request it. That’s because a bank’s duty of confidence to customers does not end with their death. (See also our guide on privacy and confidentiality.) This means next of kin and estate beneficiaries cannot give instructions to a bank or require a bank to give them information about a deceased person’s bank account. It also means we can rarely look into complaints about a deceased customer’s accounts from anyone other than the executor or administrator of the estate.

The legal process is usually to obtain probate or letters of administration from the High Court. This allows executors or administrators to deal with the deceased’s property, including his or her bank accounts.

Having obtained probate or letters of administration, an executor or administrator will typically set up an account called “the estate of [deceased’s name]”. The bank will then transfer funds from the deceased customer’s accounts to the estate account before closing the individual’s accounts. The executor will distribute funds from the estate account according to the terms of the will and then close the estate account.

If the deceased has no will and the estate is worth less than $15,000, the bank may forward money in the deceased’s accounts to his or her next of kin. But the bank must be satisfied the person is dead and that no application has been made to the High Court to administer the estate. In such circumstances, the bank will probably want to see a copy of the deceased’s death certificate and information about the next of kin. Even then, the next of kin may not necessarily be entitled to information about the deceased’s accounts, and may have to seek letters of administration from the court in order to access that information.

Signing authorities

When a customer dies, all signing authorities on that person’s accounts and any power of attorney authority are no longer valid. Signing authorities allow a person to operate an account in the name of another person despite not owning the funds. A power of attorney is a wider power and enables someone to act on behalf of another person in specific areas or in all matters.

Joint accounts

If a deceased customer had a joint personal account, the account will usually be transferred into the remaining account holder’s name, or names if there is more than one. This step will be more complicated if there is debt (particularly a loan secured by a mortgage over a property).

To learn more about estates, we suggest you talk to your bank or lawyer. See also our guides on account mandates and power of attorney.

Complainants

Our rules require us to look only at complaints from those who received the financial service about which they are complaining. When someone dies and the High Court grants probate or letters of administration, the executor of the will or administrator of the estate becomes the deceased’s representative and can make a complaint on his or her behalf. We cannot look at complaints if probate or letters of administration are pending or have not yet been sought. Nor can we consider complaints from next of kin or estate beneficiaries if these documents have been granted (unless the executor or administrator agrees).

In some limited circumstances, we may be able to consider a complaint from next of kin or estate beneficiaries if the estate is worth less than $15,000 and the High Court granted no document.

Additional resources

The following organisations offer support and information about what to do after a loved one has passed away

  • Public Trust: Provides information about estate administration and management. Explains the process of administering an estate, how long it will take and the costs involved.
  • Births, Deaths & Marriages: Gives an overview of what you might need to do after the death of a loved one. This includes information about probate and wills, financial help, registering a death, planning a funeral and what to organise before you die.
  • Employment New Zealand: Provides information about bereavement leave - leave employees can use if someone close to them passes away (and they meet the criteria).
  • Grief Support Services (Western Bay of Plenty only): Offers support and understanding, individual and whānau/family counselling, specialized child counselling, bereavement support courses and connections to other support groups and agencies.

Closing accounts

A bank can end its relationship with a customer at any time, just as a customer can move to another bank at any time. A customer may move because a competitor offers a better deal or because the relationship with the bank is unsatisfactory or has broken down. A bank may decide to close a customer’s account because of how that person has been operating it, or because the bank also feels the relationship has broken down. Banks are under no obligation to continue doing business with a person or company, but they should not close an account without good reason.

The process

Generally, a bank should not close your account without giving reasonable notice, which typically means giving you enough time to make alternative banking arrangements. Usually we would view "reasonable" as at least 14 days' notice.

In some limited circumstances, however, a bank can close your account without giving you any notice. These may include:

  • if a bank is complying with a court order
  • if you have acted illegally
  • if you have breached the bank’s terms and conditions
  • if you have acted abusively towards bank staff.

A bank does not have to explain why it is closing a customer's account, although in most cases banks follow good practice and give a reason. This gives the customer an opportunity to respond if the bank has misunderstood the facts of a situation or made a mistake.

A bank must return all the money in a customer's account at the time it closes the account, less any interest or fees that apply. A bank normally does this by sending a cheque to the last known address.

How we look at closure complaints

Complaints about a bank closing an account usually involve a customer challenging the bank’s reasons for doing so. Two of the most common reasons why a bank closes an account are:

  • the customer has used the account inappropriately – for example, the account is continually going into unarranged overdraft
  • the customer has abused a staff member in some way, either verbally or physically.

In the first situation, it can be costly for a bank to monitor an account that is in overdraft. Therefore, a bank may decide that it does not wish to continue to offer this facility to a customer.

In the second situation, a bank has a duty as a good employer to protect its staff from abuse and violence. In these circumstances, we would expect a senior member of the bank who was not subjected to the abuse to make the decision to close the account.

Most people who complain to us about their account being closed want us to either stop the bank from closing their account or to get the bank to reopen their account. However, although we can award compensation for direct loss or inconvenience if we find some wrongdoing in the way the bank closed the account, we cannot require a bank to stop the closure of an account or reopen one.

If a complaint is solely about a bank's decision to close an account, and there are no concerns about how it was done (such as if the bank failed to give adequate notice), then it is unlikely we will investigate.

Occasionally we receive complaints about account closures which are related to anti-money laundering legislation. For more information on this, see our Quick Guide on Anti-Money laundering.

Account mandates

An account mandate is a document that sets out:

  • who owns an account (often called the account holder or account owner)
  • who can use the account (and how it can be used)
  • who can access information about the account.

A mandate is very straightforward if you are the only one operating an account. But you need to take care if there are two or more account holders, or if you let someone else operate the account.

Authorised signatories

Account holders can let someone else operate the account. These people are often called authorised signatories. Most banks require account holders to also be authorised signatories. Banks often require organisations such as companies, trusts and partnerships to have a certain number of directors, trustees, partners or officers who are authorised signatories. They also require rules about how such people access accounts.

Individual authorised signatories can use an account separately if the mandate says “several”, “any” or “either” authorised signatory can sign (that is, operate the account). 

A mandate that requires “joint”, “both” or “all” (or in some cases “any two”) authorised signatories to sign or access the account together means one authorised signatory alone cannot use the account. Other authorised signatories must also authorise the transactions. A bank cannot allow transactions or other activity without the consent of the other holders.

Types of access

Be clear about what type of access you want authorised signatories to have. Do you want them to be able to access the account alone, or do you want them to act together? Consider this carefully before you set up an account – and before you sign the mandate check it carefully to ensure it accurately records how you want the account to be operated.

If you change your mind later on, and want to switch from one type to another (or want to add a new account holder) you may need the agreement of all account holders. If you have concerns about the operation of a joint account, contact the bank. It may freeze the account until you have resolved your differences. (See our Quick Guide Joint accounts.)

A bank must act in accordance with the arrangement you have specified. In general, transactions not in accordance with the mandate are unauthorised, and a bank is responsible for any resulting loss. If it can be established that a transaction in breach of mandate benefited the account holder, then generally there is no loss (except in very limited circumstances such as children's accounts). Sometimes, a bank will not be responsible for all of a loss if a customer has contributed in some way to the breach or failed to mitigate the loss.