The CHF44 million ($44.6 million) in dormant assets currently held in Swiss bank vaults has little chance of being claimed by ancestors of the original account holders, according to an expert in tracing distant relatives of deceased bank clients.
On Wednesday, Switzerland published the names of 2,600 dormant account holders online for the public to scrutinise. The website was created to meet the requirements of a change in banking law that came into force at the start of the year.
From now on, Swiss banks must publish the names of any client with whom they have had no contact for the past 60 years, provided their account holds at least CHF500. The new rules give relatives between one and five years to lodge a claim to the assets (which also include 80 safe-deposit boxes with unknown contents) before they are given to the state.
“This represents the hopeless cases that are so old and have such little detail that it will be almost impossible for anyone to claim the assets,” David Laufer, co-founder of the Lausanne-based LMD Search, told swissinfo.ch.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if at least 80% of these millions end up going to the state.”
Despite the information being provided by banks, many of the 2,600 entries do not have a date of birth or nationality for their clients. And it even appears that most of the famed Swiss bank account numbers have been lost in the mists of time.
Laufer, whose firm is employed by banks to track down hundreds of “lost” clients or their descendants, is hopeful that later lists of dormant accounts, which will be updated every year, will contain greater detail of the clients.
The Swiss Bankers Association (SBA) has welcomed the publishing of dormant accounts, with chief executive Claude-Alain Margelisch saying it provided better “legal certainty” for banks.
‘Suitcases of cash’
The issue of dormant accounts has dogged Swiss banks since revelations in the 1990s of some banks holding on to assets of Jewish clients killed in the Holocaust. But the SBA is adamant that the current list of dormant accounts has nothing to do with that issue, which was settled in 1998 after heirs of account holders brought a class action lawsuit in the United States.
Instead, the law change was driven by the need to bring Swiss banking laws up to scratch with other financial centres on the topic of dormant accounts.
David Laufer believes there is another reason that banks are keen to get dormant accounts off their books.
“The days of people turning up at bank branches with false IDs and suitcases full of cash are over. The regulatory environment has changed drastically in the last few years. These days banks, whether they be in Switzerland or anywhere else in the world, cannot afford to have clients slip off their radar,” he said.
“It is hardly credible for a bank to carry on managing the assets of a client who was born in 1876 and who they haven’t heard from for a century. The compliance departments in banks are being put under unbelievable pressure to clean up such cases.”
Since 1996 it has been possible for people to trace the assets of heirs by contacting the Swiss Banking Ombudsman. According to the SBA, the ombudsman was able to track down CHF52 million and 42 safe-deposit boxes which were subsequently transferred to their legal owners between 2001 and 2014.
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