MarketWatch (May 1, 2024) - By Alisa Wolfson

Question: I’m 86 years old and have $250,000 in my account and $1 million in investments. But I get nothing from my 401(k) as my account is locked and I am only receiving $398 from my annuity. 

I’ve called the financial services firm and fought with them about this, but their expectations of me are ridiculously outlandish. I’ve been told every excuse from I’m deceased to my name isn’t correct. I was adopted and I sometimes go by my first and middle initial and last name and I’ve been married twice. I haven’t had an ID in 15 years, and I don’t go anywhere. I don’t drive. The broker has deactivated my account and I’ll die knowing I messed up by choosing them. I’ll die broke, with nothing. What should I do? Is this something a financial adviser can assist with or do I need to explore a different avenue? (Looking for a new financial adviser too? This free tool can match you to a fiduciary adviser.)

Answer: It’s very concerning that you’re unable to access your own money. “If you’re 86, your RMDs [required minimum distributions] should be well underway and the money has to be going somewhere. A financial adviser and an elder care attorney might be able to help with this, at least to piece together the history of what happened and what needs to be done to gain access to the money again,” says certified financial planner Cristina Guglielmetti at Future Perfect Planning. 

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There are perfectly reasonable and legal reasons to freeze someone’s account, but your situation doesn’t sound like one of those, says certified financial planner and financial therapist Josh St. Laurent at Wealth In Yourself. 

“I would start by exhausting all the options at the big firm and try to get a witness, friend or partner to help. The next step is to file a complaint or initiate arbitration as they’re treating you like a number and that is unacceptable. It’s your money and you have the right to access it,” says St. Laurent. To file a complaint, visit the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) or the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), both of which offer an online submission form. You can initiate arbitration through FINRA once you file the complaint or you can seek out a securities attorney to help you with the process.

“If that doesn’t work you could file a lawsuit. Likely things won’t get to this point as an arbitrator should be able to help you regain access to your money so you can hopefully move it somewhere more willing to work with you,” says St. Laurent.

You’re in a tough position considering you don’t have a photo ID and one is usually required to complete banking transactions. “Consider discussing these issues with an attorney who can help confirm your legal and official names. Authorize the attorney to work with the financial institutions as needed to locate and distribute funds. Additionally, you may need someone to translate all the financial jargon to explain the status of any investments and annuity accounts,” says certified financial planner Pamela Horack at Pathfinder Planning. You’ll want to look for an attorney who handles these types of cases and has experience with investment fraud, so you should seek out a securities or investment fraud attorney. The SEC provides a list of ways to find a lawyer specializing in securities, including the American Bar Association and the Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association (PIABA).

Even if you just need a notarized form to get things fixed, the notary will need to authenticate your identity. “A good adviser will be able to figure out what you need and in what order and might even know local professionals like a notary public or attorney to help. It would be a lot of paperwork and kind of a pain, but a $1 million account generates enough revenue to warrant helping you,” says Amir Noor, certified financial planner at United Financial Planning Group.

To look for qualified advisers, visit the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA) or the CFP Board’s Let’s Make a Plan site. Working with a CFP ensures you’re engaging with someone who has undergone rigorous education requirements, completed thousands of hours of training and is required to act as a fiduciary, meaning they have to put their client’s best interests first at all times. You can also use this free tool can match you to a fiduciary adviser. In addition, the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory lists lawyers by practice area and location, which can help you find someone with securities fraud experience near you.