How you title a brokerage account is important for many reasons. The title of the account determines who has ownership rights for the account, who will be liable for taxes on the account and how the account will be treated at the death of the persons involved. State laws will vary some and you should consult an attorney for specific questions of law.
The account is established in a single person's name. All ownership rights belong to the named owner. At death, the account will be transferred as directed in the owner's will or, if interstate, as directed by the laws of the state of the owner's residency. Tax liability for the account belongs to the owner.
Joint Tenant with Right of Survivorship
The account is owned by two or more people. All account owners have full rights to the account. Any of the owners can exercise ownership rights without needing the other account holder's consent. At death, the surviving account holder automatically receives full ownership of the account. Tax liability for the account belongs to all owners.
Joint Tenants in Common
Joint tenants in common have ownership rights over a part of the account as determined when the account is opened. For example, owner 1 may possess 65 percent of the account and owner 2, 35 percent. The percentage of ownership stays the same over the life of the account. Neither owner can close the account without the other's consent. Tax liability for the account is divided by the same percentage as ownership. At the death of one of the owners, his share of ownership will go to whomever he designates.
Transfer on Death
While the owner is alive, she has complete control of the account. At the owner's death, all rights pass to the person named in the transfer on death deed. Bank accounts usually refer to this type of title as "payable on death." Tax liability for the account belongs to the owner until death.
An account can be owned by a trust. The trustee has ownership rights to the account but the assets belong to the trust. The trust must have language in it that establishes the right of the trustee to invest the assets in a brokerage account. Tax liability for the account belongs to the trust, not the trustee. What occurs at the death of anyone covered by the trust is determined by the terms of the trust.
Unified Transfer to Minor Account
An account titled as a Unified Transfer to Minor Account (or in some states, "Unified Gifts to Minor Account") has a trustee assigned to manage the assets of an account for a minor child. At the age of majority for the state where the UTMA is established, the ownership transfers in full to the child. The rights of ownership in the account are divided in that the trustee will manage the account, but the tax liability of the account belongs to the minor.