The Big Four
I wrote Estate Planning for Smart People two years ago, and updated it recently. Complete Estate Planning, written three-and-a-half years ago, focuses on practical issues. One practical issue no one should ignore: selecting the right bank to hold your money.
The Big Four
The four largest banks in America are Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Citibank. How big are they? Chase holds total assets of $2,530,000,000,000. That’s trillion! The 15th largest bank in America, HSBC, has assets which equal 8% of Chase’s asset base.
So what? Big bothers me not at all, if the bank services its customers. Unfortunately, not so much with the Big Four in my workaday world.
Bad Big Bank No. 1
I can’t share lots of details, but a recent case with one of the Big Four reflects a common strand: find a way not to help. A decedent’s spouse, who died years earlier, still appeared as an account owner. The first-to-die spouse used a nickname—a diminutive of the given name—when the couple opened the account, and fudged a bit on the birth year. The bank had the right Social Security number and several other indicators, evidencing clearly that the first-to-die spouse did, in fact, die. (We even had an obituary which showed both the given name and the nickname, in quotes.)
Money released? No! “Go get the death certificate changed, so it matches our information,” I was told. Or bring us more identification, and our “no, you can’t talk to anyone” legal department will research the matter further. (The death certificate amendment suggestion offended me greatly, for the bank advocates for falsifying a public record, so that it can feel comfortable.)*
Bad Big Bank No. 2
A few years ago, with another Big Four bank, I got a court order terminating a wrongful garnishment. I took a certified copy of the order to the bank. “Nope,” said their “no, you can’t talk to anyone” legal department. “Tell the judge he has to fax us the order.” That one ended quickly. Suing banks works! (By the way, judges don’t take orders from banks, because they exist in the Order-Giving universe.)
Bad Big Bank No. 1, Before
With one of the afore-mentioned banks I tried to deposit $150 in cash into an estate account three years ago. Lots of challenges, and when I called a friend who worked for the bank to complain, he said:
It’s your president’s fault. He disrespected our chairman.**
Generic Big Bad Banks
One or more of the Big Four, lately, have been disregarding Powers of Attorney signed more than a year ago. Any legal basis for this position? No, and you are thinking, maybe: “Call their legal department?” Right. Sure.
Does every situation end badly with the Big Four banks? Of course not, and even with my problem the problem I mentioned first, I did gain access readily to the decedent’s safe deposit box (which, I suspect, was owned by both spouses.)
What about other big banks? I’ve had great experiences with Northern Trust in Tucson. Same people for 20 years. They caught a fraud scam 11 years ago, on my birthday, involving more than $60,000.*** And I’m sure other large institutions serve their customers well.
And I have had some bad experiences with regional banks, too. There’s nothing foolproof here, but my experiences with the Big Four—I’ve spared you some of them and have not reported on what I hear from elder law attorney friends—tell me a local or regional bank offers better odds for an easy experience. (I recommend Great Western Bank in Tucson, for excellent, friendly service.)
Does the experience matter? Sure. In the recent case, without access to cash we couldn’t pay bills. For my client whose money someone wrongfully garnished, she waited an extra two weeks to get her money back. And for people with old Powers of Attorney, which banks won’t honor? Legal expenses. Delay. More stress.
As you think about estate planning, go beyond documents. Go beyond titling of accounts and other assets. Think about the people on your team when you’re gone. If your bank has a legal department far away, or if you don’t see the same faces for a period of years at your branch, think about other banking options. Those who you leave behind will thank you.
*The problem got resolved after about six weeks, and with an intervening lawsuit.
**My friend blamed most everything on Barack Obama.
***Someone forged my signature—not hard, with thousands of signed documents in public records—and tried to pull off a wire transfer. Because the banker knew me so well, she knew the caller trying to wire the money wasn’t me.