If anyone in your family has a bank account they haven't touched in a while, you might want to take a look at it. Inactive accounts, if they fall below the bank's threshold for free checking, can be hit with monthly maintenance fees.

And if left alone for too long, those fees can wipe out the account, as one woman learned.

Fees eat away after mom dies

Kelly Sullivan looked over records from her deceased mother's bank account, an account that has only added to the grief she feels over her loss.

The woman thought closing out her mom's checking account after her 2015 death would be fairly easy, armed with an official death certificate. But she was mistaken.

"We brought in a death certificate and they told us that was not good enough, we need something from the courts, so we waited till we got something from the courts," she said.

What many survivors don't realize is that a death certificate and will are often not enough when it comes to getting funds held by someone who died. The will has to be approved by Probate Court.

In this case it took almost two years for her mom's will to go through probate. By that time, the $200 checking account was empty. Actually, it was below empty, as overdraft fees had put it into the negative.

It turns out Sullivan's mom was hit with monthly maintenance fees, because it was below the minimum threshold for free checking.

"They took $11 every month," she said. "We could not touch the account but they were taking $11 out every single month until it overdrafted."

Warning to anyone with inactive accounts

This is important not only if you have older parents, but also if you have young children with a bank account in their name.

If you don't touch that account for a while, money can be taken out every month until its drained.

After two years of inactivity, accounts are considered "dormant" in most states, and many banks will then turn the money over to the state's unclaimed funds division if they cannot reach you.

But this account had not yet reached the two year cutoff.

How to protect yourself

So don't let this happen to you.

  • Find out what it takes to avoid monthly fees in a seldom used bank account. Different banks have different rules.
  • If you are older, fill out a "Payable on Death"(POD) form.
  • A POD allows a survivor to the get the money immediately, for funeral expenses and anything else, with just a death certificate.

Kelly Sullivan understands, but says "they could have done something to stop it, the fees coming out, since they had known she had passed away."

Kelly just wants a little compassion. "This was my mom's rightful money," she said.

The bottom line

After our initial report, the bank agreed to put back all the fees it had taken from Sullivan’s account.

But lot of older adults and younger children have accounts that don't meet that requirement, and they could end up with a big surprise a year or so down the road if they don't touch their accounts.

So find out what you need to do to keep an account from accruing fees, so you don't waste your money.