Last Monday, I signed in to my Chase Bank account to pay a credit card bill and nearly screamed. The total balance of the accounts was $ -99,999,995,124.69. Yes, that’s negative 99 billion dollars.

I was even more alarmed to see that the monstrously overdrawn account was the one that belonged to my dad, who passed away last month. I’d held Power of Attorney for him and managed his finances when he was no longer able to during the last year and a half of his life. We had not yet closed his account, which still had a small sum of money in it, to make sure that some hospital checks written prior to his death had time to clear.

How could it now be overdrawn by 99 billion dollars? Frantically, I clicked around on the Chase portal, trying to figure out what had happened, but there was no helpful information.  

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Fearing identity theft, fraud, or some grave error that could potentially have us on the line for $99 billion, I called Chase customer service. First, I used the automated voice system to double check the balance, and sure enough, the robotic female voice informed me the account had a balance of “negative ninety-nine billion, nine hundred and ninety-nine million, nine hundred and ninety-eight thousand, eight hundred and ninety-eight dollars and twelve cents.”

Finally connected with a customer service rep, I shared the situation and my alarm. She explained, as I knew, that Power of Attorney ends with a person’s death, and said that I would have to go to his branch in person. It was evening and I was not looking forward to the prospect of having to spend another 12 hours unsure of what was going on.

“I understand that, but could you please just tell me if this is something I need to be worried about?” I asked.

She could not.

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Instead, I turned to Google, searching various iterations of “bank account 99 billion dollars overdrawn” and “$ -99 billion account balance.” The first pages of results were dominated by a news story from Chicago in 2016, about a woman who was shocked to learn her dead mother’s bank account was overdrawn by - you guessed it - $99 billion.

The story, reported by ABC7 Chicago, said that Chase Bank told the station they were “investigating and they will work with her to fix the issue,” which was only very slightly reassuring. Strangely, the woman’s name was also Sheila. Could there be some bizarre glitch that happens with Chase’s system if your name is Sheila and you lose a parent who had a Chase bank account? I wondered.

Then I found another article from about a man (they withheld his name, but it seemed unlikely it was Sheila) who had the same experience with Chase when his mother died in 2014.

Chase customer service had been unable to offer him any helpful information either, telling him “I can’t do anything about it” and then suggesting “You should go into a branch on Monday or at your earliest convenience and let them know . . . It looks like a computer error.”

At this point, it thankfully seemed unlikely that the $99 billion debt was real, and my worry soon transformed into indignation. This had clearly been causing people stress for years - worse still, it had been happening to people who were recently bereaved, making them panic during an exceptionally emotionally vulnerable time. What was going on?

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The Chase branch didn’t have a good answer. The associate I spoke with explained that when Chase learns via social security that a person has died, they put a hold on the account, which makes sense. But he was confused about why I was able to see it, and why it got included in my total account balances. “That shouldn’t happen,” he said.

I sent an inquiry to Chase media relations and reached out to the author of the Coachella Valley story, the site’s publisher, Craige Campbell.

Campbell recalled that the man had been quite distraught when he contacted Coachella Valley and told me that when he went to the Chase branch, they told him that it’s how they flag that someone has died.

“That’s horrendous,” he said. “There he is, his mom just passed away and he’s trying to handle everything, and then he gets this shock.”

He told me he’d heard locally about another person who got Chase’s $ -99 billion surprise just last month.

“It’s a policy of theirs and clearly they’re continuing to do it, that’s the sad part,” he said. “Why do they have to do it like this?”

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A Chase communications officer offered to connect me with one of their specialists, on the condition that the talk be on background.

Through that conversation, I learned that it is, in fact, a standard practice for Chase. The rationale is that when Chase is notified of a customer’s death, they automatically put a hold on the account for $99 billion to prevent any debits from being made and allow for any Social Security or pension payments that need to be returned. It’s a measure taken to protect the customer and their account until Chase receives proper documentation of who’s entitled to those funds.

Needing to protect the account makes sense and is obviously a good practice. What doesn’t make sense is why it has to be done in this way.

If you’re grieving a death and trying to take care of the many practical matters that come with it, the very last thing you need is to worry that you or your late parent may be billions of dollars in debt. Bringing this panic and worry to people who are recently bereaved is shocking and heartless customer service.

Whether by changing the way the account hold is registered or offering transparent, easily accessible information about the practice, Chase needs to do better.  

Have you encountered this practice with your bank? Tell us in the comment section.