Montreal·CBC Investigates

Forgotten safety deposit box of late husband claimed by widow after 18 years

Hundreds of safety deposit boxes go unclaimed in Quebec every year, likely forgotten by their owners. Revenu Québec, the provincial revenue ministry, keeps an online register of unclaimed assets, but many people don't know it exists.

Revenu Québec oversees contents of 1,100 boxes, listed in an online register of forgotten assets

Carole-Anne Wapen said she had no idea her late husband, Mitchell, had an unclaimed safety deposit box until CBC News brought it to her attention.

Carole-Anne Wapen thought it might be a scam when she was told her late husband had left behind an unclaimed safety deposit box with contents valued at nearly $15,000.

"I was a little bit leery," said Wapen. "Is someone trying to get money out of me or my credit card?"

It was, in fact, CBC News that tracked down Wapen after finding her husband's name in an online register along with those of other owners of unclaimed safety deposit boxes. Wapen's husband, Mitchell, died three years ago.

He'd never mentioned the box, his widow said. She'd been his executor, but she'd seen no mention of a safety deposit box in the files she'd gone through when she settled his estate.

"Honestly, I could have kicked him in the pants, saying, 'How could you forget this?'" said Wapen with a chuckle.

"Really, it was like a little gift flying down from the sky."

Wapen, pictured here with her husband in 2000, doesn't know why the government couldn't track him down. Her husband, who died three years ago, had owned a business, and they lived at the same address for years. (Submitted by Carole-Anne Wapen)

Few people check online register

Hundreds of safety deposit boxes go unclaimed in Quebec every year, likely forgotten by their owners.

When a bank can't find a box's owner, it packs up the contents and sends them to Revenu Québec, the provincial revenue ministry

The ministry lists the owner's name and that person's last known address in an online register of unclaimed property.

However, many people aren't aware of the register, and unless they're notified by Revenu Québec, they're left in the dark about that forgotten life insurance policy or valuables tucked away for safekeeping.

Lifting the lid on these boxes can mean discovering hidden treasures.

Some contain money — even gold and silver coins.

People squirrel away family heirlooms, such as jewelry, watches and precious stones. Collectors stash paintings, stamps and medals.

Revenu Québec says some unclaimed safety deposit boxes contain valuables, such as jewels, coins and gold bars. (Associated Press)

One box contained more than 250 coins and three small gold bars worth an estimated $200,000, said Revenu Québec spokesperson Geneviève Laurier. Another held five gold bars, each valued at $52,000 in 2012, when they were sold off by the ministry, Laurier said.

Revenu Québec has also come into possession of objects of sentimental value — photographs, diaries, locks of hair and faded love letters.

Laurier said the ministry receives the contents of more than 500 unclaimed boxes a year. It currently oversees about 1,100 in all.

If the contents are worth less than $500, they are kept for 10 years. More valuable contents, as well as documents such as life insurance policies, wills and investments, are kept for 30 years.

Anything that can be liquidated is generally sold off within 60 days of the box coming into Revenu Québec's possession, Laurier explained. The proceeds are then held under the owner's name in the register. Anyone can check the online database to see if a name is attached to any unclaimed safety deposit box or money.

Widow questions government search

Revenu Québec says it tries to find safety deposit box owners by cross-checking information from the bank with its own data to find an address.

The ministry wasn't able to locate Wapen's husband back in 2001, when his former bank lost track of him and turned over the contents of his box to the government.

The provincial revenue ministry said it receives the contents of more than 500 unclaimed boxes a year and currently oversees 1,100 overall. (CBC)

Wapen can't recall anyone from the bank or the government ever contacting them.

She questions Revenu Québec's search methods, because she said her husband shouldn't have been hard to find.

Mitchell Wapen ran a Montreal sofa bed company listed in the province's business registry.

The couple lived at the same Saint-Lazare address for decades.

After CBC contacted the retired daycare co-ordinator in September, Wapen began encouraging her friends to talk to their partners and families about whether they have a safety deposit box.

She thinks it's a topic that should be included when people are discussing their estates.

Fees apply when box claimed

To claim the contents of forgotten safety deposit boxes, people have to provide proof of ownership, such as a social insurance number, an old address or their box rental agreement.

Wapen said she'll put the money her late husband, above, left in his safety deposit box toward a family trip with the couple's grown children. (Submitted by Carole-Anne Wapen)

The ministry charges a fixed fee of $346, plus tax, for claiming boxes that only contain documents.

To claim a box with contents like Wapen's, valued at more than $500, people must pay an additional 15 per cent of the net value.

For those reluctant to pay the fee without knowing what's in the box, Revenu Québec will disclose the contents once a claimant's identity is verified.

Wapen still hasn't told her two grown children about the surprise windfall, but she suspects they'll just laugh and say, "Oh, that's Dad!"

She considers it a reminder of why she loved him so much and plans to put the money toward a family trip.

"The first thing I'm going to do is kiss the envelope to say, 'Thank you, hon. Thank you for leaving something,'" said Wapen.

"It's a nice little chunk that you could have fun with. And that's what I'm going to do, have fun and think of my Mitchell."

With files from Anna Sosnowski

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