Column: Sorry your dad’s dead. Mind if we hang on to his money?
“Losing someone can be stressful,” Bank of America’s Estate Services division says online. “Rest assured we’re here to help.”
Bob Carter Jr., a longtime BofA customer, needed the bank’s help after his father, also a BofA customer, passed away in April.
All he got, he says, is months of stonewalling.
Carter’s dad, an Alhambra resident, had about $24,000 in his checking account when he died at the age of 89. In most cases, next of kin can obtain such funds by submitting a death certificate and a few other forms.
But Carter, 65, discovered that no mater how many times he and other family members turned in the same documents, no matter how many times they called and were subjected to epic waits on hold, they just couldn’t get the bank to make good on its pledge.
“They kept saying that all the paperwork was in order and that they’d quickly release the money,” the Pasadena resident told me. “But then they’d turn around and say again that documents were incomplete or missing.”
Carter said he gradually came to believe that BofA, which reported its third-quarter profit rose by 58% to $7.7 billion, was determined to hang on to the money for as long as possible.
“We kept calling the bank every few weeks and they kept giving us the run-around,” he said. “It’s suspicious.”
It is. And let’s be clear about situations like this: There’s absolutely no excuse for a bank or any other business to not step up when contacted by a bereaved family.
These are precisely the moments when high-minded corporate declarations of caring and sensitivity are put to the test. And all too often, businesses come up short.
Carter’s problems with BofA reminded me of a column I wrote in June about a Fresno woman who died at the age of 91. A California solar company called Sunrun refused to cancel her contract and refused to remove its solar panels from the roof of the house.
The company seemed determined to make the dead woman’s family pay off her contract, even though family members had no legal obligation to do so.
It wasn’t until I contacted Sunrun that the company suddenly realized it was behaving in a miserable fashion.
Again, it should never come to this. No business should ever place self-interest ahead of showing compassion to a grieving family.
And it shouldn’t take the threat of bad publicity to make a company do the right thing.
Carter and his family jumped through every bureaucratic hoop Bank of America put in their path. They submitted their father’s death certificate and other notarized forms. They gave affadavits to the bank’s Estate Services department.
Then they submitted the same documents again when BofA said it couldn’t find them or needed extra information.
Then they called over and over to ask when the funds would be released.
“If they weren’t saying documents were missing, they said we were in the queue and the check would arrive shortly,” Carter recalled. “Then we’d call again and they’d say something else.”
He and his family became so frustrated, they finally reached out to me for help.
“I feel like there is something very wrong here,” Carter said. “I wonder if they are keeping the money of all their dead customers in an effort to make money somehow.”
That’s doubtful. I couldn’t find any indication that such practices are widespread in the banking industry. But it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
Banks routinely use customers’ funds to balance their books and demonstrate sufficient reserves to financial authorities. A bank also may use excess reserves in making loans — lending money deposited by one customer (for low interest) to another customer in need of cash (for high interest).
Carter shared with me a series of letters sent by BofA quibbling with this or that document. He also forwarded emails he and his brother sent to the bank after being assured repeatedly that all the paperwork was in order.
He said he visited a BofA branch and confronted the manager.
“He said this happens all the time and assured us we’d have the check within 10 business days,” Carter told me. “Twenty business days later we had to call again, and were again told we were in the queue for checks.
“They never, ever reached out to us during all this,” he said. “We always had to call them and wait forever on hold to get through to a human.”
I contacted the bank and asked, in effect, what the hell?
That same day, Carter said, he received a call from “a very nice and apologetic woman” at BofA who confirmed that the family’s documents were in order (as the family had been saying for months).
A day later, his late father’s funds were transferred to Carter’s account.
“Our objective is to assist families who have lost a loved one through the estate process and properly disburse assets in a timely manner,” Betty Riess, a BofA spokesperson, told me.
“During such a difficult time for the family, we regret any inconvenience that may be caused through the collection and review of required documentation to disburse the assets.”
That’s nice, but it doesn’t address the mixed messages and needless hassles inflicted on Carter and his family during that difficult time.
Nor does it explain how I was able to resolve in a single day what BofA made customers deal with for months — almost as if none of the bank’s excuses held up to scrutiny.
Carter said the experience left a bad taste in his mouth.
“I wonder how many hundreds or thousands of other families are dealing with something like this,” he said. “It’s just bad form.”