If the account isn't held jointly or in a trust — and Halloran says such lack of planning is the case more often than not — the account becomes off limits until the estate is settled in a court proceeding. In the meantime, a judge may issue a letter to allow an executor or administrator of the estate access to the account, but only to pay so-called "last expenses" (e.g., funeral costs).
Family members and other likely heirs should resist the temptation to forge the deceased's name on checks to pay bills or use the deceased's ATM or debit card to obtain cash. Forgery is fraud, as is any other unauthorized access to someone's bank account.
"Forging a check, even if you are the heir, is a no-no," Halloran says.
The rules may sound strict, but they exist for good reason, according to Nessa Feddis, senior counsel at the American Bankers Association in Washington, D.C.
"It's important for the appropriate person to manage the estate and sometimes you have to move quickly, but at the same time, you want to preserve the estate so it is dealt with as the deceased person wanted," she says.