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My Problems with a Mega Bank Part 2 - Bank of America


Yesterday I described the problems I'm having with Wells Fargo. Today, I'll describe the problem I had with Bank of America. Unlike the Wells Fargo problem, I was able to get the Bank of America problem resolved. However, it was frustrating and a little amusing in how the problem was finally resolved.

Like my Wells Fargo problem, there are lessons to be learned. Also, it's another case in which a branch manager was too quick to pass problems to the corporate department instead of taking responsibility of the problem. This type of problem seems more common at mega banks.

Quick Summary of My Bank of America Problem

My dad rented a safe deposit box at a Bank of America branch, and he was listed as the only "owner" of the box when he passed away. When my brothers and I first attempted to access the box with the death certificate, we were informed that it would require a court order. Fortunately, my dad left an inventory of the contents, and we determined that we did not need immediate access. Later when we closed my dad's checking account at Bank of America, they wanted us to also close the safe deposit box that was linked to the account. We were then pleasantly surprised that the banker allowed us to empty the box.

The Details

Many years ago my dad took advantage of a relationship checking offer at Nations Bank that included a free safe deposit box. Nations Bank became Bank of America, and he was able to keep the box free with the checking relationship. He was able to meet the minimum balance requirement with a CD. My mom and dad were both co-owners of the box, but my dad didn't add a new co-owner when my mom passed away in the 90's.

My dad passed away at age 88 in March of this year after experiencing severe heart problems. That was the family matter that I had mentioned in March.

My brother was the beneficiary of the checking account, and I was the beneficiary of the CD. Once we received the death certificates, I was able to access the CD without problems. As I mentioned yesterday, if you're a beneficiary on a bank account, all you need to bring to the bank is your ID and a certified copy of the death certificate.

However, I wasn't able to access the safe deposit box even with the death certificate. Unlike bank accounts, banks typically don't allow beneficiaries to be listed on a safe deposit box. If you want to make sure your heirs can access the box after your death, it's a good idea to have a co-owner for the box. Some people may prefer not to have a co-owner since that person would have access rights to the box.

Accessing a safe deposit box of a deceased family member often does require more than a death certificate. According to the FDIC:

the bank will likely require you to produce documentation such as a death certificate and a court appointment as executor if the person is dead, or a power of attorney or similar directive giving you the legal right to handle these matters for a living person.

I don't remember the specific requirements from Bank of America. One of the bankers at the branch contacted the corporate offices, and she wrote down the requirements on a post-it note. I think it was more than just a court appointment as executor which meant hundreds of dollars in attorney fees.

Fortunately, my dad did have an inventory of the safe deposit box contents. That allowed us to determine that we did not need immediate access to the box. So the box became a low priority.

As I mentioned, my brother was the beneficiary of the checking account so he would have to close that account. Unfortunately, he waited a few months before closing the account. Since I closed the CD, the minimum combined balance requirement was no longer met. That caused a monthly maintenance fee to be charged to the account.

When my brother did close the checking account, the banker noticed that it was linked to the safe deposit box, and she wanted to close the box. I had the safe deposit box keys, so I went to the branch. I didn't know what to expect since it didn't seem like we would be able to close the box without the necessary court documents.

Surprisingly, I was able to get access to the box! With the death certificate and the two keys, the banker was able to close the safe deposit box. And before it was closed, the banker gave me access to the box so I could empty the contents. This was exactly what I had wanted to be able to do back in March when I first spoke with the branch manager. I wished it could have been that simple back then.

Final Thoughts

I don't know if the last banker who closed the safe deposit box made a mistake by allowing me to empty the box or if the branch manager just failed to make it this easy when I first asked about access. I'm glad we were able to get access to the box, but it was frustrating that it took as long as it did.


One lesson in this case is to be careful about what you put into your safe deposit box. This is especially the case if you are the only owner of the box. The DepositAccounts reader Pearlbrown provided some good advice in this forum thread:

I would never put originals of documents such as wills, trusts, or power of attorney documents in a safe deposit box unless the person who might need access to them also has access to the box. Copies, yes, but originals never. A safety deposit box could be sealed for weeks after a death and the person who is to act as your executor could be caught in a drawn-out and expensive legal catch-22 (they need the original document to demonstrate that they are the executor and have access to the box but the document is inside the box). A fireproof safe box at home is preferable for originals, or even your attorney's office as an alternate location.

Having a family member as a co-owner on the safe deposit box will make it much easier for your heirs. It's important to remember to update this if the co-owner dies.

Another lesson is to maintain an inventory of the contents of the box. This will also make it much easier for your heirs.

Part 1

The other mega bank that gave me problems after my dad passed away was Wells Fargo. I described those problems in my post My Problems with a Mega Bank Part 1 - Wells Fargo.

Related Pages: Bank of America

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Previous Comments
  |     |   Comment #1
When my father passed away my mother and I went down to the bank where they had a safe depoit box to change the signature card for the box to show my mother and I as having access. Unfortunately the customer service person accidently destroyed the new card and kept the old one on file. I found this out when my mother passed away and I went to close the accounts and the box at that bank. I had the death certificate and a power of attorney with me and the bank still refused to allow me access. A quick call to my attorney settled the matter in one minute and I was allowed to conduct my business. That bank has since been devoured by a TBTF (Too Big To Fail) bank and is no longer in business at that location. Good riddance!
OC Steve
  |     |   Comment #2
I also have elderly parents in their mid-80's, and they had the thought to add me (oldest son) to their safe deposit box many years ago.  As they got older, I was usually the one to place items in/out of the box for them.  As was pointed out before, I think we should also add another sibling to the box to ensure future access, since an accident could occur when I take my parents somewhere and we could be in a bad crash together and all perish.  Don't want to place burden on others in the family to have to "fight" for access like Ken experienced.  Thanks for the onteresting article!

OC Steve
  |     |   Comment #3
KenTBG - My condolences to you and your family on your father's passing.  Really appreciate all the info you provide and the insightful responses it provokes. As you can see, your personal accounts have indeed benefitted your readers. Hope something from the responses can now help you in return.  All the more gratitude for the extent you share with us in order to serve the greater good.  Thank you.
  |     |   Comment #4
Contents of safe deposit boxes can get damaged if there is a fire or water from the floor above.

And then there are the banks that throw away the contents of safe deposit boxes.

There was one case on San Francisco peninsula about 5-6 years ago. New safe deposit boxes were being installed by a specialized contractor. Bank didn't go though all the old boxes beforehand. Entire banks of boxes were scrapped - with contents. Can't find the story online.

Found this case: On October 6, 2004, DBS Bank (Hong Kong) Limited announced that, during the renovation of its branch in Kowloon, when the bank attempted to remove more than 900 empty safe deposit boxes from the branch, 83 safety boxes rented by customers and containing valuables were accidentally removed. The 83 boxes were subsequently sent to a scrapyard and crushed. The bank reported that 36 boxes were recovered, although the valuables contained inside were badly damaged.

Admittedly, these are freak incidents.

Floods are fairly common, judging by what turned up in my google search.
  |     |   Comment #5
Your blog entry made another site's post. Well done Ken.

  |     |   Comment #6
Ken, I'm sorry to hear about the loss of your dad.  I recently lost both of my parents in the course of two months, so you have my sympathies.  Regarding your experience with BOA, I'm especially sorry to hear about that, but not surprised.  It seems as though everywhere you turn these days, you can read about one thing or another that BOA has pulled.  However, a time of loss such as yours is the WORST time that a bank's rules and regulations take priority over doing the "right thing" for a customer. Unfortunately, my parents had some assets held at BOA, not by choice but by mergers over the years.  Without fail, every other institution that held some of my folks' assets went out of their way to make things easy for us.  BOA was the sole exception.  Today is November 16, 2011 and a process that started in June is still ongoing. I believe we've talked to every department in the bank but never the same person twice.  It's even gotten so bad that when we try to dial up to call the number we'd last been given to call, we get a recording saying that we no longer have access to the automated system because we have no active accounts at the bank! Hearing your story gives me a glimmer of hope that our situation may some day finally be resolved.  In the meantime, I am telling everyone I know in every way that I can to boycott BOA.  They say they are too big to fail.  Just imagine how many smaller community/regional banks and credit unions could benefit from the failure of one of the behemoths!  Wells Fargo, Citi, and Chase take notice!  Many of us are fed up and although we may not be the 1% that you seem to cater to, we have numbers and with numbers comes power.    
  |     |   Comment #7
I just have to laugh at some people with hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings to shuffle around for the best interest rates and complain about $10 or $15 dollars they have to shell out to join an organization to become a member of a C.U. paying the highest interest rates.  Get Real!
  |     |   Comment #10
After the death of my mother in law, my wife and her siblings went to Wells Fargo to "cash in" the CD's. Of course we got the same response you did. We are waiting to hear back from the bank, of which I expect to get the same run around. I would just say let this go but this is a large sum of money. Oh..and the bank told us to get in touch with the state...the state said go back to the bank, we seen this action from them before. Ahhhhhh banking at its best...
  |     |   Comment #11
Ken, thanks for sharing...just read this post for first time...newbie since 2011. Another aspect of large banks that may be loss in the shuffle...large banks are inclined to call in good loans when things go south. These large banks have greater capital needs and thus may/do look to existing borrowers for immediate and full repayment even in non-default times! Be careful out there...and include and test having responsible person on access to boxes but you keep the keys!

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