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.
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.
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.
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.