Smart About Money: They did “everything right”. But it didn’t work out …

A family came into the Bank to make a withdrawal from the savings account of their beloved mother, who had just died.

Specifically, they wanted to get the money she had set aside for her funeral plus the amount she’d left in her will to her granddaughter, who had long planned to use the promised inheritance to buy a car.

The family had gone to the teller window and ended up talking with me because they’d been told they weren’t authorized to withdraw money from their mother’s account.

This is absolutely not one of those “bad, greedy kids” stories. At all! These were decent, honorable people who were doing what their mother clearly wanted them to do.

Which I told them. I knew they weren’t scoundrels. Having spoken over the years to their mother, a long-time customer, I even knew that she had earmarked funds for her funeral and the bequest for her granddaughter.

But, unfortunately, the mother’s name was the only name on her bank account and, by law, we could not allow anyone else to access the money.

“Oh, of course,” her kids said. “You need the Power of Attorney first.” And they presented me with that paperwork.

That was when I had to tell them something I know they did not want to hear. A Power of Attorney is only in force while a person is alive. Now that their mother had passed away, the legal document controlling her estate was her will.

These folks were organized and, as it so happens, they had the will with them. They offered to show it to me so they could see they were only following their mother’s wishes. Unfortunately, once again, I had to tell them that the will would need to be probated before any funds could be accessed.

Probate is often presented as a complicated, drawn-out and needlessly-difficult aggravation. In reality, it’s a time-tested legal process that ensures a will is the most recent document representing the wishes of the person who wrote it. And then probate makes sure those wishes are honored after the writer of the will has passed away.

“Why is it so hard for us to get at this money?”, the woman’s family asked me. Those are the two reasons why. And since not every family is as close as this one, having the protections of probate built into the law really matters.

What could they have done differently? First, they could have opened a designated “Payable-on-Death” bank account.

According to, “Payable-On-Death bank accounts offer an easy way to keep money – even large sums – out of probate. All you have to do is properly notify your bank who you want to inherit the money in the account or certificate of deposit. As long as you’re alive, the person you named has no rights it. You can still spend the money, name a different beneficiary or close the account.”

Most people have never heard of Payable-On-Death accounts but they’re a neat, simple and totally free way to get money directly into someone’s hands after your death without going through probate.

Or – since she absolutely trusted her kids – this family’s mother could have added one of her kids as a joint owner on her bank account. But that’s a big step that’s not right for everyone. What’s the best way to figure out what’s right for you? You can always talk confidentially with your banker or attorney. We are happy to help people make important financial decisions with confidence.

Nick Maffeo is the President & CEO of Canton Co-operative Bank in Canton. “Smart About Money” is a regular column he writes for the Canton Citizen. Have a financial question you’d like to ask? Email to


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