Business

Not even death stops banks from deducting fees

Rocco Bersane died in March at the age of 56 after being hospitalized for a gallbladder infection and liver failure.

At the time of his death, Bersane had about $1,175 in a Bank of America checking account. His disability-related Social Security checks were automatically deposited there.

BofA acknowledged in a letter to Bersane's next of kin shortly after his death that it had received notification of his passing.

Yet since that time, the bank continued deducting a $12 monthly maintenance fee from Bersane's account.

"The man is dead," said Patricia Burge, 60, of Norwalk, who lived with Bersane for 19 years. "How do you keep charging fees to a dead man?"

That's the beauty of being a bank, apparently. When it comes to fees, the notion of "until death do us part" has little meaning.

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Bersane's experience in the banking afterlife highlights the importance of getting your financial house in order before the worst happens.

It also demonstrates a need for laws or regulations that address a bank's responsibilities in such circumstances. As it stands, BofA can continue eating away at a dead customer's funds for years.

"Is it wrong morally? Yes," said Marlene Seltzer, a Tarzana probate attorney. "Legally? No. The law says they can get away with it."

Bersane died without a will. Under Section 13100 of the California Probate Code, any amount less than $150,000 can be claimed by a deceased person's heirs after 40 days.

I reached Bersane's son, Rocco Bersane Jr., 32, at his home in North Carolina. He said he was aware of the money sitting in his father's checking account. However, he's unsure how to proceed.

He said he spoke with the bank and was left with the impression that the paperwork for recovering his father's funds was so complicated, it could require hundreds of dollars up front in attorney fees. If so, Bersane said, it may not be worth it.

But he knows this much: BofA shouldn't be entitled to keep charging his dead father a monthly checking-account fee.

"That's just wrong," Bersane said. "He's no longer with us."

Under California law, funds in inactive bank accounts must be handed over to the state for safekeeping after three years. During that three-year period, though, a bank can keep charging fees to maintain the account.

That would be understandable if a bank had no clue about a customer's whereabouts. The bank arguably would be acting in a customer's interest by serving as custodian of the customer's money.

In this case, however, BofA knows full well that Bersane won't be turning up within the next three years or any time thereafter. He's dead.

Furthermore, the bank knows that Bersane has an heir who is legally entitled to the money.

In a letter dated March 22 to Bersane and Burge, the bank said that it had been "informed that Rocco Bersane passed away." It requested a copy of his death certificate "to make sure the financial relationship is handled appropriately."

Burge did as requested.

In June, she received a notice from BofA informing her that "we've closed our case for Rocco Bersane," noting that "we have taken appropriate action on the financial relationship based on the information we've been provided."

What did that mean? Apparently that the bank would keep helping itself to $12 a month from Bersane's account. Over three years, that would total more than $400.

"I don't want the money," Burge said. "I just want to know how they can get away with this. Why don't they just hand the money to the state?"

Garin Casaleggio, a spokesman for state Controller John Chiang, said officials would be happy to take the money off BofA's hands and hold it until claimed by a relative. But he said the state has no authority to demand the funds until three years of account inactivity have passed.

There are apparently no federal laws that apply in such cases. A spokeswoman for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said inactive or dormant bank accounts typically fall under state regulation.

Betty Riess, a spokeswoman for BofA, said the bank's policy in the event of a customer's death is to stop charging account fees "for up to six months" so that family members can get their affairs in order.

In Bersane's case, she said, no fees were withdrawn in March and April, but BofA started docking the account again as of May. Riess had no explanation for why the fee resumed so quickly.

"It was a mess-up on our part," she said, "but we've corrected it."

The monthly fees for May through July will be returned to Bersane's account, Riess said. Moreover, BofA will extend the fee waiver through January, she said.

I related to her the misgivings of Bersane's son about claiming his father's funds. I asked how difficult the process is. Riess declined to comment.

It seems clear that state law is currently insufficient for situations like this. The obvious fix would be to revise existing regulations so that financial institutions are required to pass along unclaimed funds to the controller's office in the event of a customer's death.

Maintaining a dead person's account for the sole purpose of repeatedly withdrawing a monthly fee is both immoral and deeply offensive — further proof, as if any was needed, of the banking industry's unabashed greed.

In "Tuesdays With Morrie," author Mitch Albom wrote that "death ends a life, not a relationship."

BofA clearly takes that sentiment to heart.

David Lazarus' columns appear Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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