Banking relationships are usually of a long-term nature, and can extend over very lengthy periods of time. It is not uncommon for banks to lose contact with a customer. The action that banks must take in such instances and what happens to the assets in question is already strictly regulated in Switzerland. A possibility exists to search for dormant assets through the Banking Ombudsman. Since January 2015, there is a new legislation in place according to which banks must publish assets for which the last contact to the customer dates back 60 years and more on an electronic platform. If, after publication, a further year passes without customer contact, the assets are then transferred to the federal government.
How assets become dormant
Moving to another country, a death, the closing of a company – there are any number of situations in which a person can forget to update the bank of important information relating to changes to an account.
Losing contact with a customer is something that can happen at any bank anywhere in the world. In Switzerland, there are clear rules dictating which measures a bank must undertake in such cases, but also what customers and their heirs can do in order to find their assets.
The rules for the treatment of dormant assets
Guidelines for the treatment of dormant assets have been in place in Switzerland since 1995. These broadly govern the treatment of such assets and were approved by FINMA, the Swiss supervisory authority. Adherence to these guidelines is subject to ordinary audit procedures according to banking law. The guidelines have now been reinforced through a revision of the Swiss Banking Act. The new legislation came into force on 1 January 2015.
Banks must take appropriate measures to ensure that contact with the customer is not lost. Should, despite these measures, the bank not have contact with the customer over a lengthier period of time, then according to the current legislation and the guidelines, it must:
- Take appropriate measures to find the owner and
- flag assets in cases where contact with the customer can no longer be established as being “without contact” for 10 years after last contact was made.
- Protect these assets from illegitimate access by means of organisational measures and manage the assets in the best interests of the legitimate claimant.
- Enter the information relating to all affected assets with a value exceeding CHF 500 as well as safe-deposit boxes in a centralised database. Only the Banking Ombudsman can use this database to conduct a search in the interests of legitimate claimants.
- These relationships are then deemed dormant for a further 50 years, and subsequently - 60 years after the last contact with the customer - they are published on https://www.dormantaccounts.ch. This publication requirement again applies to all relationships that exceed an asset value of CHF 500 or whose value is unknown (for example in the case of safe-deposit boxes).
- If no contact is made by a legitimate claimant regarding publication within the specified period, the banks must transfer the assets to the Swiss government (specifically: to the Federal Finance Administration). The duration of the period is one year. For older assets that have already been dormant for more than 50 years when the new regulation came into force, the period is five years.
- Assets of up to a maximum value of CHF 500 will be transferred to the federal government after 60 years without such publication.
Once the assets have been transferred to the federal government, all claims relating to the assets are null and void. The obligation to publish and transfer the assets has been in effect since 1 January 2015.
The search for assets without contact and dormant assets
Individuals with knowledge of possible assets without contact or dormant assets, to which he or she is entitled, should contact the bank in question. In cases where the name of the bank is unknown, it has been possible since 1996 to conduct a search with the help of the Swiss Banking Ombudsman. A search can be conducted at any time once assets have become without contact – it is not necessary that the 60 years have passed. Because the assets that are contained in this centralised database are subject to bank-client confidentiality, an inquiry may only be made through the Banking Ombudsman and only with proof of entitlement. For such a search to be conducted, the claimant must submit documents that substantiate entitlement to the assets. This ensures that only those individuals who are in fact entitled to the assets, receive the assets in question. If assets are found, the Banking Ombudsman contacts the affected bank, which conducts a final verification of the legitimacy of the claimant, and the contact between the bank and the client is re-established in this manner.
Further information on how customers can prevent their accounts from becoming dormant has been compiled and published in a flyer compiled by the SBA.
The publication of dormant assets
Despite the best of efforts to find customers and the possibility for individual searches through the Banking Ombudsman, it can nevertheless occur that contact cannot be re-established for decades. In order to give customers a final possibility to search for assets and thus ensure that banks can address dormant assets in a standardised manner and with legal certainty, there is a special procedure in place:
- Assets that were without contact for 10 years and then remained dormant for a further 50 years (i.e. 60 years since last contact with the customer), must be published on the internet if they are valued at over CHF 500 or have an unknown value, in order to give any parties that are potentially entitled to the assets the opportunity to establish contact. Bank-client confidentiality is rescinded for these assets in order to increase the possibility that the entitled parties can find their assets following publication.
- Where available, the last name, first name, date of birth and nationality of the customer (in exceptional cases the account or savings book number) will be published, as well as the last known place of residence or domicile. This applies to all types of assets, including safe-deposit boxes.
- The same applies for companies or other legal persons (naturally without first name and date of birth).
- This makes it possible for anyone, and therefore also for persons who do not have concrete information regarding the existence of a dormant Swiss bank account, to individually verify the existence of published dormant assets, and to do so free of charge, at any time and from anywhere.
- Claims can be submitted at https://www.dormantaccounts.ch by means of a form. This is then automatically sent to the bank in question for processing. The Swiss Banking Ombudsman serves as a point of contact in the event that a person wishes to submit a claim by post or has further questions.
- Processing of the claim by the bank can result in the re-establishment of customer contact. In this case, the assets are no longer deemed dormant, and the authorised person may dispose freely of such.
- If there is no response to publication on the website after the specified publication period has elapsed, the assets must be transferred to the federal government by law. The rights of the customers then become null and void.
- According to the new guidelines, the banks must publish these assets on the website at least once annually.
Dormant assets: Questions & Answers