Written by attorney Neil Kuchinsky

How to Conduct a Search to Determine If You Are An Heir to a Secret Swiss Bank Account

Here are some simple FAQ's and answers:

  • Who can make a search request and how?

Anyone can make a request, regardless of nationality, place of residence, race or religious denomination. Searches for assets that date from the Second World War and that belonged to Holocaust victims are not the only searches taken into account. People who believe that they are heirs to “dormant" assets in Swiss banks can contact the Banking Ombudsman, who will immediately send them a questionnaire and a brief explanation of how the procedure works. After having filled out the questionnaire, claimants must return it along with a check for one hundred Swiss francs. Although this deposit has already been the subject of public controversy, it serves simply as a means to prevent misuse of the system.

A search will get underway once five conditions have been met:

  • Establish in a plausible manner that an account, a custody account or a safety-deposit box still exists or could exist in a Swiss bank
  • State the name of the account, custody account or safety-deposit box holder
  • Prove that the bank customer is deceased or has been missing for over ten years
  • Establish in a plausible manner your legitimate right to the existing account, custody account or safety-deposit box if necessary, particularly using official documents to justify your identity and heirship
  • Indicate whether the requested search is to be conducted country-wide or limited to certain banks, towns or cantons.

What are your rights?

  • The rights of the customer or the heir with regard to the bank remain guaranteed even when there has been no movement in the account or custody account for an extended period of time and the customer has no longer been in touch with the bank.
  • The bank will not terminate a contract on the grounds that contact with the client no longer exists. Corresponding claims will therefore not fall under a statute of limitations.
  • The bank does, however, reserve the right to terminate or compensate if the bank’s fee to be charged to the customer or heir is no longer be covered.
  • If the bank has had no contact from a customer for ten years, the accounts, custody accounts and/or safety-deposit boxes will be earmarked. The bank will also take adequate safety precautions to prevent unauthorized access to these assets.
  • "Contact" is considered an instruction, communication or utterance by the customer or the customer’s proxy that results in a movement on the account or custody account, or an entry in the files. (Note: Customers whose bank communications are sent by mail, without ever being returned, are not considered to have “dormant assets".)
  • If a customer has several accounts, custody accounts or safety-deposit boxes, contact regarding even only one of them will prevent all that customer’s accounts, custody accounts and safety-deposit boxes from becoming "dormant".
  • In the case of "dormant" accounts, custody accounts and safety-deposit boxes, the bank has to safeguard the interests of legitimate customers or their heirs who have claims on these assets.

How much does it cost? Search fees amount to 100 Swiss francs. If the search is accepted, your 100-franc deposit will not be returned to you. However, if the search is declined, your deposit will be fully refunded.

Who to contact In keeping with Swiss custom, the banks have appointed an "Ombudsman" contact to handle these questions. The current Ombudsman is Mr. Hanspeter Härni.

Banking Ombudsman (mediator) Schweizergasse 21 P.O. Box 1818 CH - 8021 Zurich Tel.: +41 (0) 1 213 14 50 (mediation / 8:30 – 11:30 a.m.) Tel.: +41 (0) 1 213 14 60 (inquiries to dormant accounts) Fax: +41 (0) 1 210 37 20

Additional resources provided by the author

Embassy of Switzerland

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