Keep proof of your stash

Consuming Interests

December 12, 2006|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,Sun Columnist

In the midst of cleaning her Linthicum Heights home, Eleanor Weigman discovered - two years after her husband died at age 84 - an old metal box at the bottom of a cedar chest. Inside were two old Maryland National Bank passbooks stamped with her beloved Vincent's name. Eleanor handled all the couple's finances during their 55 years together, but this was the first she had seen of these two accounts. One held $237.75 on March 28, 1988; the other contained $473.05 on March 10, 1988.

"He would not have done something I didn't know about," Weigman said. "He was not that type of person. He wouldn't have closed these accounts without me knowing."

Weigman called, looking for a hand in solving the mystery.

Maryland National Bank was once the state's biggest bank; its assets are now owned by Bank of America. B of A spokesman Ernesto Anguilla said he could not discuss the specifics of Weigman's account because of corporate policy on privacy, but said he would contact Weigman immediately.

After wading through boxes of old records, Bank of America officials informed Weigman that nothing was found in a search for the dormant accounts.

"Under Maryland law at the time, after five years of no contact with the account holder, we turn over any assets to the state," Anguilla said.

Under the state's escheats law, financial institutions, insurance companies and corporations must report bank accounts, contents of safe-deposit boxes, wages, insurance benefits, security deposits, stock dividends and other funds to the Maryland comptroller if they remain unclaimed. That period of time is now three years.

Twice a year, the state advertises the names of the most recently reported accounts in state newspapers. Sometimes, the ads include an endearingly cheesy photo of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer clutching a wad of cash or surrounded by gold coins, silver, jewelry and other goodies, while urging you to come and get it.

The state has records on nearly 455,000 accounts, some dating back to the 1960s, that are worth about $201 million, according to the comptroller's office. That's a lot of loot.

So I went to the state comptroller's Web site at www.maryland taxes.com, clicked on the link "search for unclaimed property" and plugged in Weigman and her husband's name. Not a single match.

On the chance that I missed something, I talked with Daniel Riley, assistant director of the comptroller's compliance division.

Because unclaimed funds are kept indefinitely, Riley said, I should have found the Weigmans' accounts on the Web site I tried. Since no matches were found, Riley said he would try one last step - looking through microfilm records.

"I suspect, however, that the funds aren't there. We don't see that that money was turned over to us," he said.

Riley's prediction proved correct. No records surfaced in the microfilm search.

Empty-handed, I phoned Weigman to deliver the bad news.

"I would have been surprised if we found something," Weigman said. "The only thing that bothers me is that the bank should have some record of when those accounts were closed. If they can keep records of me owing them money on a 30-year mortgage, they should have records of my old bank accounts."

Scott Sturgill, a senior vice president at Bay First Bank in North East, in Cecil County, who spoke as a member of the Maryland Bankers Association, agreed with this assessment. He said checking accounts are often declared dormant by banks after a year and savings accounts after two years. Regardless of how long ago it was, however, he said banks keep pretty thorough records.

"There's probably documentation somewhere that shows the accounts were closed by her husband," Sturgill said. "If the bank keeps searching, they'll probably find some record somewhere."

Weigman wasn't sure she had the patience to keep pushing Bank of America to continue digging, especially since tracking down records that are almost two decades old could take some time.

To avoid such problems, Sturgill suggested that account holders keep all financial documents in one location. Sturgill said people should also write "closed" or have tellers stamp "closed" on passbooks. Even better, hang onto any correspondence that shows the account was shut down to avoid confusion later.

While Weigman acquiesced to the negative results of the search, she remains almost certain that the money in those mysterious accounts might still be out there somewhere. Asked if her husband might have kept a super-secret stash and then drained the accounts from her all-knowing, all-seeing eyes, Weigman laughed.

In fact, some financial planners advise couples to create a joint account and also keep a reserve for each person's private use - although none seem to recommend hiding those accounts. Still, nearly 55 percent of couples hide financial assets from one another, according to a recent Financial Planners Association survey for USA Today.

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