Commentary

The death game: big corporations and tactics they use to drain money from the departed

June 1, 2021 12:01 am

(Style Weekly)

Should it take four months and dozens of phone calls that consumed more than 40 hours – a full workweek – on the phone, not to mention at least as much time online, to disconnect phone service for a deceased person?

Likewise, should an equal expenditure of time, energy and treasure be necessary to liquidate, transfer and consolidate the financial assets of the dearly departed to settle an estate’s final expenses?

There’s nothing about the passing of one’s mother that is not horrifying. A kid reckons, from the earliest childhood awareness of mortality, that such a parting will surely come. My boyhood nightmares matured into a sustained and solemn dread that increased over the decades as ailments and age took their toll until the inevitable appeared — as a wakeful nightmare  — on a horizon that once seemed so distant.

Any reasonable last will and testament names a trusted person — an offspring or close relative, maybe an attorney — as an “executor,” a survivor legally responsible for settling the estate the person leaves behind. Mom’s will appointed me to that duty, one I am honored to discharge, but which carries considerable weight and demands measures of perseverance and patience that aren’t easy to summon.

There are government benefits — Social Security payments, Veterans Affairs benefits, etc. — to discontinue. Uncle Sam has no sense of humor about checks that continue to flow into bank accounts months after a recipient has passed.

There are insurance policies to examine: which ones, if any, have benefits payable, and to whom; which are simply drafting monthly premiums from her melting checking account and need to be canceled?

There are assets to be captured such as cash accounts, securities, real and personal property to distribute among rightful heirs or sell.

There are ongoing services accounts: utilities, TV, internet and phone service. Which to cancel and which to continue, and for how long?

There are merchants to pay, credit cards with balances due and lawyers and funeral homes to compensate.

Mom passed last winter, at a time when the coronavirus was raging, particularly in the rural South. For the sake of avoiding a super-spreader event, we held a small, intimate memorial service in the days after her passing and deferred a larger “celebration of life,” (something she had explicitly directed in writing and in conversations) for the summer, hoping – wisely, as it turns out – for progress against the virus.

Balancing grief with the awful business of settling the estate in the fog of a pandemic from a distance of nearly 1,000 miles has been an education. The paucity of state or federal regulatory bodies from which an exasperated executor can seek intervention with balky mammoth corporations is distressing. These companies with limitless resources erect unreasonable and byzantine roadblocks between executors and the assets they’re trying to reclaim or revenue streams they seek to stanch in settling a departed loved one’s estate.

The trouble came when it was time to shut down unused telecommunications services and marshal what remained of investments that were never ostentatious but had been respectable before they were drawn down frightfully low in her later years.

For decades, a broker based in North Carolina had dutifully shepherded her investments and advised her about various timely trades and transactions. They were conservative – mortgage-backed bonds, mostly — and showed commensurately modest returns through the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s and 2000s. It was sometime in the 2010s, after the brokerage was subsumed into a behemoth national financial services company, that her balance was deemed too trifling for a dedicated broker’s time and she was dismissed as a client with a cold, two-paragraph form letter and a 1-800 number. Afterwards, if she wanted to attend to her holdings, she had to contend with automated call-routing systems that confound and deter callers, interminable hold times and, eventually, a corps of associates who spoke on recorded and monitored phone lines, usually speaking from offshore call centers in fractured English and scant knowledge of U.S. law and financial and securities business. After Mom’s passing, it fell to me to grapple with those same hurdles in a frustrating monthslong quest to wrest her assets from a banking/brokerage Goliath and apply them to her post-mortem debts.

During those conversations, company representatives sent me on multiple snipe hunts in which I completed numerous forms only to discover later they were the wrong ones or altogether unnecessary. After a succession of contradictory instructions by email and multiple phone calls, I was told to schedule a visit at one of the company’s local branches to untangle the increasingly perplexing and contradictory instructions.

I showed up at the appointed hour only to learn that the bank, which had scheduled the appointment, had no record of it. When I was “worked in,” a bank officer told me that he was powerless to resolve the problem because this was a matter wholly within the corporation’s brokerage division. He did, however, helpfully offer to open a separate business checking account to receive whatever funds I liquidated. Once that was done, I was advised, money from the sold securities could flow directly into the checking account.

Wrong. Again. When I tried to sell the remaining securities and draw down the money, I was told it could only be sent to another brokerage account, not a checking account.

Back at Square One, I resubmitted the requisite documents I had tendered months earlier as I established another securities account. Finally, it was set up and the securities were moved from the old account to the new one, and I began trying to liquidate the investments. In another phone call, an offshore associate said I needed to fill out two documents whose relevance I immediately questioned. So I called again and eventually reached a young fellow on a trading desk in the United States. As I explained my conundrum, the weariness in his voice told me that he spent most of his hours untangling messes just like this. In less than an hour, over the phone, he had at last walked me through the process, sold the securities and liquidated them to cash.

On another front, I concurrently waged an even fiercer battle with a multinational telecommunications company. I began calling the company in late February to cancel home telephone, internet and TV services, to close the account and to discontinue the $200 monthly drafts on her bank account. But each new month brought new bills, necessitating multiple follow-up calls in March, April and three so far this month – all of them documented on my end. During one call, on May 17, the associate who answered my call after 42 minutes on hold was often inaudible over a rooster crowing nearby and young children speaking loudly in an unrecognizable tongue.

As of this writing, I can’t say for sure whether the service has been canceled, as I have demanded for the past four months, but I know the bank draft has been stopped. That’s because I received a letter from the company breathlessly alerting me that the draft had been canceled and imploring me to quickly reestablish it.

Sure. Just as soon as hell hosts the Winter Olympics.

So why haven’t I identified these businesses? If I thought it would do any good, I would. Calmer heads have convinced me that it’s more secure and legally prudent not to.

Besides, these companies are not alone in making it all but impossible to close and settle the dead’s accounts from which they profit, even marginally.

I’m also pretty confident I am not the only executor tilting at these windmills. And absent legislation to establish regulatory authorities with real power to punish these massive corporations for such egregious conduct, it will continue.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]

MORE FROM AUTHOR