Widower denied access to bank safe deposit box

Tuesday, Oct 13 2015 04:27 PM

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DELAND, Fla. - Ronnie Wiggins met his future wife, Sandra, at a church event in 1956.

"I called her Sunshine," said Wiggins, who was married to Sandra for 54 years.

She passed away last year following a battle with leukemia.  "It's really hard,” said Wiggins, now 74. “She was my sunshine."

About five years before Sandra's death, Wiggins said they were offered a free safe deposit box at Bank of America, where the couple had several joint banking accounts.

Instead of placing valuables such as jewelry in the safe deposit box, Wiggins said they filled it with mementos from their marriage, including love letters Wiggins wrote to his wife while serving in the Mediterranean with the U.S. Navy.

The couple also locked up a letter written by former President Ronald Reagan to Wiggins’ late father-in-law, a police officer who provided security during a campaign event.

The safe deposit box also contained old photographs, the couple’s marriage license, an insurance policy, and Wiggins’s will, he said.

"There are some things in (the safe deposit box) that mean nothing to anyone else," said Wiggins. "And they won't let me have it."

Since his wife's death, Wiggins said he repeatedly tried to take possession of the sentimental items locked inside the bank vault, but Bank of America employees refused to give him access to it.

“It’s driving me crazy,” said Wiggins. “They won’t give me what is rightly mine.”

The reason? Although Wiggins had a key to the safe deposit box, he acknowledged that he never signed paperwork that would have granted him legal authority to open it. Only his late wife was a signatory on the account.

“I didn’t sign the document because they told me I didn’t have to,” said Wiggins.

On the day his wife finalized the contract for the safe deposit box, Wiggins claims bank employees told him he could attend a doctor appointment.

“Unless his name is on there, he is not an owner and he’s not going to get in there without a court order,” said Orlando attorney Tom Olsen. “From the bank's perspective, they're legally liable for anything that happens to that box.”

Without that crucial signature, Wiggins learned he would have to spend a lot of money trying to gain access to the safe deposit box.

“To do this, you have to do a full probate administration,” said Olsen. “We’re talking four to six months that you’re working with a lawyer. You’re talking thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees and court costs.”

Wiggins did not need to go through probate immediately following his wife’s death since all of the couple’s other financial accounts were held jointly, the widower said.

“At my office we're always talking to people about easy ways to avoid probate,” said Olsen. “When we're walking through a checklist with them, we ask them, ‘Do you have a safe deposit box?’ If the answer is yes, we always tell them to make sure one of their children is also a signatory on that box and knows where a key is, so if you pass away they'll be able to get in there without a court order.”

“I don’t understand why I have to pay someone to get something that is already mine,” said Wiggins, who was worried the bank would someday auction off the contents of his wife’s safe deposit box.

Under Florida law, financial institutions are allowed to dispose of unclaimed property through a state auction after three years.

News 6 contacted Bank of America for comment on this story. Three days later, a spokesman for the financial institution responded with some surprising news.

“We are sorry for Mr. Wiggins’s loss and understand his frustration,” said Bank of America Media Relations Representative Matthew Daily. “We have reached out to him to help him.”

That afternoon, Wiggins received a phone call from the manager of the DeLand branch, inviting him to pick up the contents of his wife’s safe deposit box.

“It’s all here,” said Wiggins as he emerged from the bank holding a shoebox containing the mementos.

As the widower lifted the lid, tears filled his eyes looking at the faded envelopes postmarked from the U.S.S. Warrington destroyer in 1960, the letter from then-Gov. Reagan, and a packet of photographs he was too emotional to open.

“I couldn’t be happier,” Wiggins said. “I’m just a happy man right now.”

Citing customer privacy, Bank of America officials said they were not authorized to explain why they made an exception to bank policy and allowed Wiggins to retrieve the contents of the safe deposit box.

“(The bank manager) gave me his sincere apology for taking so long,” said Wiggins. “He felt it was only right for me to have what was there.”

Wiggins also credited News 6 for reaching out to bank officials.

“I think News 6 played a predominant role in getting results, and getting me what rightfully belongs to me, and what my wife wanted me to have,” said Wiggins.

By Mike DeForest - Investigative Reporter


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