If your individual bank accounts don’t have beneficiaries listed, your heirs may have problems receiving funds from those accounts. This Yahoo article/video has an example in which a woman is trying to gain access to her deceased husband’s Wells Fargo savings account. Her husband designated her as a “payable on death” (POD) beneficiary on his Wells Fargo checking account, but not on his Wells Fargo savings account. Wells Fargo won’t let her access the account without “power of attorney” or “executor” papers. The woman said she called the probate court and was told a letter from the court would cost $250. It also said that when the bank account balance is under $500, it’s at the bank’s discretion on releasing the funds. Since the savings account balance is only $273, it’s not worth her money to pay the court and/or attorney fees.
This article reminds me of what happened to me in 2011 when Wells Fargo refused to give me access to my dad’s CD after he passed away. In my case, I had a document from Wells Fargo that showed me as the beneficiary. My dad was always careful to ensure he had all the account documentation. The problem in my case was that Wells Fargo claimed that it was the wrong document, and their systems showed that there was no beneficiary designated for this account. I told them that it was a Wells Fargo banker who provided my dad with the document.
I was in a similar situation as this woman in that I would have to pay at least $250 to my attorney to get the necessary court documents that Wells Fargo was requiring.
After I didn’t get any help from the Wells Fargo branch manager, I filed a complaint against Wells Fargo with the OCC. After the first submission of the complaint, I had to send three more letters to the OCC and Wells Fargo over about four months before Wells Fargo finally agreed to give me access to the account.
One thing to note about this issue is that counties and states have laws on how bank account funds can be released to the heirs, and they do differ. So it is important to check with your county and state on the laws.
It’s also the case that banks and credit unions have different rules. I experienced this with Navy Federal Credit Union. My dad also had a small savings account at Navy Federal Credit Union with only a $100 balance. He had joined so that I could become a member, but since there wasn’t a nearby Navy Fed branch, he never made a large deposit. The Navy Fed application at that time did not provide fields to designate a beneficiary. Consequently, no beneficiaries were listed on the account.
Initially, Navy Fed was requiring court papers for me to access this account. Since the attorney fee would easily exceed the account balance, I waited. After a few months Navy Fed mailed me a document that allowed me to claim the funds without any court papers. I was finally able to access my dad’s savings account funds without any cost.
As these cases show, it’s a good idea to double check the beneficiary listings on your bank accounts. Also, make sure the beneficiaries show up in the bank's system. It's a lot easier and less costly for your heirs when banks accounts have beneficiaries.