U.S. Customs backs down, releases family's $500K inheritance

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has started releasing a family's inheritance, after a CBC News story revealed the money had been seized and stuck in limbo at the border for almost a year.

'It gives me some hope that everything will be OK,' says ill beneficiary

David Saikaley, the executor of the family's will, says it took a CBC News story for bank and border officials to take his case seriously. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has started releasing a family's $500-thousand inheritance, after a CBC News story revealed the money had been seized and stuck in limbo at the border for almost a year. 

Three of the family members have received their $100,000 bank drafts in the mail. The other two are expecting their money to arrive in the coming days.

"I'm very happy," said beneficiary Michael Hashim in Toledo, Ohio. "It's taken so long. It gives me some hope that everything will be OK."

It's been a race against time for Hashim. 

Over the past year, he lost 100 pounds due to health problems. The 66-year-old said he wasn't able to afford groceries and relied on a single meal a day from volunteer program Meals On Wheels.

He plans to use his inheritance to pay off his mounting medical bills. Hashim also wants to fill up his fridge with groceries, buy a microwave so he can warm up food, and get more medical help to get back on his feet.

Family blamed TD Canada Trust

Since last August, officials had held the family's $500,000 worth of bank drafts in custody at the border in Indianapolis, saying the money was "deemed counterfeit."

The family tried several times to appeal the U.S. border official's decision. Meanwhile, the executor of the will in Ottawa, David Saikaley, said he tried to get help from TD Canada Trust to no avail.

Saikaley blames the bank for getting the family into the mess in the first place.

He said an associate at the TD branch at Lansdowne Park gave him "faulty advice" and told him bank drafts were the "safest" and "fastest" way to send the money across the border.

It was only later that he learned you can't mail more than $10,000 across the border without declaring the money to officials through specific paperwork ahead of time. Otherwise, the sender risks forfeiting the money and even criminal penalties, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website.

Saikaley visited this TD Bank branch on Bank Street last August and says an associate told him bank drafts were the safest and fastest way to send inheritance money to the U.S. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Bank drafts were 'legitimate'

After CBC's story aired on July 19, Saikaley said TD explained to border officials the bank drafts were authentic.

U.S. Customs later issued a statement to CBC saying that "upon further inspection" it found the drafts to be legitimate.

Saikaley said after a year with no solution, it took a news story to get action.

"It certainly was the only thing that helped us in our issue," Saikaley said in an email. 

Beneficiary Phillip George planned to pick up his bequest on Friday and said he'll "jump for joy" when it's finally deposited in his bank account.

"I feel totally relieved," he said from Cleveland, Ohio.

George wants to set aside some of the money for his 12-year-old grandson's college education. He's dreaming of attending Harvard University one day. 

Photocopies of the five bank drafts issued to Saikaley at TD in Aug. 2017. CBC News has blurred confidential numbers on the document. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

'Get a second and third opinion'

Saikaley said his family's story is a cautionary tale to other executors of wills. 

"When the bank gives you advice, maybe you better get a second and third opinion — which is something I didn't do," Saikaley said.

Bank drafts are considered cash.

TD Canada Trust told CBC it couldn't cancel the bank drafts because then it would be on the line for the $500,000 if the notes were ever deposited. In a statement, the bank said it reviews its policies "on a regular basis" and support is available to customers who encounter issues.

Lawyer Andrew Rogerson said the case seems like "a horror story." His firm specializes in cross-border estate work and sends money all over the world using wire transfers. 

"I don't think in this day and age that we would ever be using a bank draft for something like that," said Rogerson. "We use wire transfers.... It's simple, neat, quick. You would have a trail of exactly where it went to."