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Is My FDIC Insured Checking Or Savings Account Safe If My Bank Fails?

Published 7/24/08 (Modified 3/9/11)
By MoneyBlueBook

Updated With The New and Current FDIC Insurance Limits For Bank Deposits! (New Law Went Into Effect October 3, 2008)

As the American and world economies endure a period of economic recession, the once stable and thriving marketplace can seem like a distant memory. Not only does it seem like unemployment warning flags and disappointing corporate earning reports lurk around every corner, it's all too easy to succumb to the financial despair. When you combine the mortgage market meltdown with increasing housing foreclosures, and you mix that with high gas prices, fears of another major Islamic terrorist attack, and snowballed consumer pessimism, you have a spicy cocktail for widespread financial depression. While I'm not a financial fortune teller, nor am I a guru who can predict when the recession or lingering credit crisis will pass, all I can do is reassure you of areas in your life where you ought not to be overly distraught or paranoid about.

One segment in the economy that has spawned a huge surge of concern and irrational panic is the area of bank failures and bank bankruptcies. Because of the excessive subprime lending to consumers totally unqualified to receive home mortgages made by irresponsible mortgage lenders in the past few years, the economy is now reaping the terrible financial whirlwind result of defaulting loans and home foreclosures. This calamity is currently happening on a massive scale as huge banking giants like Citibank and Bank of America, as well as major thrift saving institutions like Washington Mutual are getting pummeled for their ties to bad mortgage loans. Unable to recoup their housing mortgage investments, many of these financial service providers are having to write off billions of dollars of unrecoverable bad loans, triggering serious questions by creditors, deposit account holders, and shareholders of their ability to continue as viable going concerns.

Bank Failures Have A Way Of Sparking Emotional Panic, Regardless Of The Government Effort's To Alleviate Fears

While most major banks have healthier segments of their financial businesses to siphon assets and capital from, thereby allowing them to stay afloat, a few have not been so lucky. Netbank, an online banking institution that was one of the first early adopters during the initial Internet banking craze, ultimately keeled over due to the disintegration of its mortgage business segment. When its asset position could no longer meet depositor demand, federal regulators swooped in to shut it down, forcing Netbank to ultimately file for bankruptcy.

Banking and mortgage services giant Countrywide Financial recently faltered under the crushing weight of bad mortgages as well, and was ultimately acquired by Bank of America at an extremely huge discount, saving it from near collapse.

Most recently, IndyMac Bank fell flat on its face, triggering shock waves that signified the United States' second largest banking collapse in history. Due to the sheer financial size of IndyMac bank, and the large scale and huge number of account customers the banking collapse affected, the news triggered panic attacks and resulted in reports of huge lines of desperate customers clamoring to get their deposit money out of the bank out of fear of the unknown. Despite the federal government's announcement that the vast majority of deposit holders would not lose a single cent of their money, news of catastrophic bank failures have a way of making consumers go crazy and act in irrationally frenzied ways. As someone who considers himself relatively educated about the subject of finance, even I have to admit I was disturbed by the sheer magnitude of the Indy Mac bank collapse. After all, if IndyMac could fall, who else could potentially be next? I felt a slight tinge of emotional panic despite my otherwise logical and rational mental faculties - and I wasn't even an IndyMac banking or home mortgage customer. But yet, I still felt the reactive emotional ripples that made me question my faith and trust in my bank and the economy at large. While bank failures are incredibly rare, they do happen - especially when there is a significant and pervasive trigger (the subprime mortgage meltdown) that is causing the financially destructive domino effect.

Thus, that is why it is extremely important for us, as cool headed consumers, to greatly educate ourselves on the types of financial and banking protections the system has in place to shield the money we save up in banks, savings and loans, and credit unions from loss. By learning more about how the federal government, the FDIC, and private bank risk sharing agreements protect our deposits, the more our fears will diminish, thus helping to solidify our faith in our banking institutions. We live in an efficient market where there are powerful protective systems in place, and proper financial education will help to reinforce that confidence. Thus sometimes, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself - a nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance" (a powerful quote made by former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression).

How Does FDIC Insurance Keep Our Bank Accounts and Deposit Money Safe?

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) is a federal government run entity that provides deposit insurance protection for participating member banks - guaranteeing their deposit accounts from loss. The FDIC system was set up to instill consumer confidence in our nation's banking system during a time of severe economic recession and financial turmoil. To prevent massive runs on banks triggered by irrational consumer panic to withdraw money during times of crisis, the United States government set up the FDIC to guarantee depositors at insured banks that their money would always be safe, even during the worst of times.

As a general rule of thumb, the current FDIC insured amount per depositor at each bank is $250,000 (with extra exceptions for different ownership categories). This blanket protection insures member bank accounts from bank failure loss, up to the maximum insured amount of $250,000. The FDIC protection covers a variety of bank deposits, including - checking accounts, savings accounts, money market accounts, certificate of deposits (CD's), and even bank money orders and cashier's checks. However, the FDIC protection does not cover non bank deposit type accounts and assets like - stocks, bonds, mutual fund investments, variable or fixed annuities, U.S. Treasury securities, or contents stored in safe deposit boxes. As FDIC insurance only covers bank failure loss, it also does not provide protection against bank fire, fraud, or theft, although in the overwhelming majority of cases, individual banks usually have their own private hazard and casualty insurance coverage against these other types of loss.

The FDIC also provides loss protection for retirement accounts held in member banks in the form of deposits. The FDIC limit for retirement accounts, which includes self directed plans like Roth IRA's, Traditional IRA's, SEP's, and Keogh's, currently stands at - $250,000. The higher FDIC limit for retirement accounts is a clear recognition by the FDIC of the importance of ensuring that consumers always have their retirement nest eggs to fall back on.

How Does The Federal Government and The FDIC Monitor The Banking Industry?

While by no means a perfect system, the banking industry is highly regulated by the federal government and watched by multiple federal agencies - including the Federal Reserve, the U.S. Treasury's Office of the Comptroller of Currency, the FDIC, and the Office of Thrift Supervision. Along with state banking regulators, there are multiple sets of eyes at all time on the state of the banking market. While bank failures are incredibly rare, they do happen on occasion unfortunately.

In such an occurrence, as soon as the federal and state regulators determine that a bank no longer has the capacity to meet depositor demands and sustain sufficient capital due to insolvency problems, the FDIC barges in to take command. Once it takes control, the execution is usually fairly rapid as the FDIC is highly motivated to ensure a seamless transition. Until the FDIC can find a suitable buyer of the failing bank's assets, the bank generally continues to run as usual without significant interruption. In the rare event the FDIC cannot find a suitable buyer, it closes down the ailing bank and sends out checks to all account holders within the FDIC insurance limits along with interest. Usually the FDIC payments are sent out in a matter of days.

For Those Banking Customers With $250,000 Or Less In Total Bank Deposits, Your Money Is Fully Covered By The FDIC

If you are a young student or a person with relatively low income with little in the way of financial or banking assets, you probably won't have to worry too much about losing your money in the event of a bank failure. If your total bank deposits are less than $250,000, you can rest assured that the full faith and credit of the United States government has your back. The ones that have to be more vigilant in how they structure their checking and savings account deposits are those with more than $250,000 in total deposits. Those with more than $250,000 in deposits will need to pay greater attention to how they break up and consolidate their money among FDIC insured banks to ensure maximum FDIC protection against loss.

For Those With More Than $250,000, You'll Need To Pay Attention To How The FDIC Provides Separate Coverage For Different Ownership Categories At Any One Bank

While I personally don't have more than $250,000 in total bank deposits that require me to even worry about this problem (yet!), it's something I want to know more about because I know one day I will reach that goal (why dream if you can't dream big). It's better to know how to structure your bank deposit portfolio now and plan for that occasion, than not know what to do when you reach that point someday in the not too distant future.

While the FDIC insurance program protects individual bank depositors up to a maximum of $250,000 per bank, there are clever ways and not-so-secret methods to get you around this protection limit. The primary way to accomplish this is through deposit account diversification. By splitting your total deposits into multiple ownership category accounts or splitting your assets among different FDIC insured banks, you can ensure full protection of your money. Remember, bank deposit accounts at different banks are insured separately (although all bank branches are considered part of the same bank). Thus, each bank has its own complete set of FDIC coverage limits.

At any one bank, the FDIC offers each category of ownership account its own individual coverage cap. There are different types of ownership categories, each with its own $250,000 FDIC insurance limit. You can go straight to the official source if you want to know more about the FDIC's policy on ownership categories, but the more common ownership categories are listed here. Remember, each ownership category (single account, joint accounts, etc) gets its own $250,000 FDIC coverage limit:

  • Single Accounts - Most consumer bank accounts fall into this category, which covers checking, savings, and CD's. Basically, if your bank account is in your name only, its ownership category is probably that of a single account. Single accounts also include sole proprietorship business accounts you may own at the same bank (DBA, "Doing Business As" type businesses). All personal and sole proprietorship business deposit accounts at the same bank are added together as single accounts and insured up to the combined maximum FDIC limit of $250,000.
  • Joint Accounts - Joint accounts are simply bank deposit accounts that are owned by two people or more at the same bank. While most joint accounts are held by married couples, joint account owners don't necessarily need to be married. For example, while I have my own individual bank account at a local Chevy Chase Bank, my mom and I also jointly hold a separate shared deposit account at the same bank. Individuals can have multiple joint accounts at the same bank, each with joint ownership involving different people, but when it comes to calculating the total FDIC limit for the joint account category, all proportional shares that each individual owner owns in all joint bank accounts at any one bank are added together and insured up to $250,000 for each individual. Thus, while a joint deposit account for a married couple may appear to enjoy a higher $500,000 FDIC limit, it's actually made up of two separately capped $250,000 limits - one for the wife, and one for the husband.
  • Trust Accounts - Both revocable and irrevocable trusts get their own FDIC insurance limits of $250,000. By listing others as beneficiaries, one can strategically use trust deposit accounts to get around the usual FDIC individual caps. For example, both a husband and wife can set up 2 separate revocable trusts in each other's names to get an extra total $500,000 FDIC limit on top of their other single and joint account limits.
  • Business Accounts - I'm sure business owners feel the FDIC insurance deposit limit for business accounts are currently much too low, but as it currently stands, bank deposit account funds held by corporations, limited liability companies (LLC's), and partnerships at any one bank are combined and insured up to a maximum FDIC limit of only $250,000 (much too low in my opinion). Keep in mind, sole proprietorship business accounts are lumped in with single accounts.
  • Retirement Accounts - Self directed retirement accounts where the account holder gets to decide what to do with his or her money, are offered much higher insurance limits under the FDIC - at $250,000. This particular ownership category includes the following retirement plans - individual retirement accounts (IRA's), Roth IRA's, Simplified Employee Pension Accounts, and Keogh Plan accounts. All retirement account deposits held by an individual at a single bank are added together and insured up to a maximum FDIC limit of $250,000. However, keep in mind, retirement account assets invested in stocks, bonds, and mutual funds are not FDIC insured as you're actually investing through a broker with a working relationship with your bank. The FDIC coverage only protects retirement bank deposits, not investments.

Those With More Than $250,000 In Bank Assets Should Shift Bank Deposit Money Into Joint Accounts To Maximize FDIC Coverage

Because the FDIC provides $250,000 total protection limits for each ownership category, including $250,000 for self directed retirement accounts at the same bank, consumers may be able to greatly increase their total overall financial protection by splitting their money among different types of ownership accounts at the same bank. For example, if you have an individual savings account with total deposits valued at $600,000, you need to be extra careful about bank failure. In the event your bank fails or is suddenly unable to meet depositor demands, you stand to potentially lose $350,000 because only $250,000 worth of assets in the single account category are covered. The solution is not to open up multiple bank accounts like checking accounts or CD's as they are all of the same ownership category and doing so won't increase your overall FDIC limit. The best way to diversity and boost your FDIC limit is to spread your deposit among different ownership categories or among different banks. In the case of the hypothetical individual $600,000 savings account, it would be advisable to take at least $350,000 from that savings account and shift it into a joint account with your spouse, thereby sheltering the $350,000 under the $500,000 ($250,000+$250,000) total joint account FDIC limit. You might even want to make sure you give each deposit account extra room under the FDIC cap to allow interest to accrue, but still remain fully protected.

To reiterate the point about ownership categories, let's say you went to Wells Fargo and opened up a brick and mortar checking account, an online high interest savings account, and set up a few CD's - your total coverage limit will still only be $250,000. However, if you opened a joint account with you and your wife or husband, while opening up your own individual checking account at the same time, you will be able to receive $250,000 coverage limit for the checking account, and another separate $500,000 total marital pool coverage limit for the joint account.

Business Accounts Are Covered By FDIC Insurance, But Depending On Type Of Business Entity, They May Or May Not Boost Your Overall Coverage

Depending on business type, a business bank deposit account may or may not enjoy its own separate $250,000 FDIC limit apart from the individual's cap for single accounts. Because a sole proprietorship and the individual running it are regarded as one and the same for taxation and legal purposes, the FDIC treats sole proprietorships as single accounts for assessing the extent of FDIC coverage. Thus, opening a sole proprietorship business at the same bank as your consumer checking or savings account will not allow you to gain extra coverage.

Only partnerships, limited liability companies (LLC's), and corporations are able to qualify as separate ownership categories for additional FDIC insurance coverage. Because the FDIC regards certain business entities as separate ownership categories for FDIC insurance purposes, it is not uncommon for clever but sneaky business types to express interest at creating phantom, dummy businesses for the sole purpose of inflating FDIC limits. However, FDIC regulations expressly forbid this practice and stipulate that business accounts for partnerships, corporations, and other unincorporated associations need to be engaged in an "independent activity" such that the business is not engaged primarily in boosting FDIC insurance coverage.

Further Bank Account Diversification Strategies Using Multiple Banks To Increase FDIC Coverage

Because FDIC insurance coverage is offered for not only different account ownership categories, but also for different banking institutions, the recommendation by some pundits for high networth individuals is to spread one's assets among a multitude of banks. Because each bank offers its own set of bank failure protection limits by the FDIC, savvy account holders are often advised to sacrifice some of their deposits made at just a handful of high yielding banks for greater diversity by spreading it among a greater number of deposit institutions. Let's say you have $750,000 in a high yield savings account at HSBC Direct that you want to fully protect under the FDIC. If setting up joint accounts to boost FDIC coverage is not available to you as a viable option, you could instead open up accounts at say, Bank of America and Wachovia, shifting $250,000 into each of those two new savings accounts. Thus, your total $750,000 portfolio would now enjoy separate $250,000 FDIC coverages at three different banks. As I mentioned above, in such an event, you may actually want to consider breaking up the $750,000 into four total banks instead of just three to give yourself room to grow in interest and stay fully protected.

One alternative way to shift your banking assets among different banks without actually having to run around the neighborhood or Internet looking for new banks is to participate in a Certificate of Deposit Account Registry Service (CDARS). Banks that are members of the CDARS network do the leg work for you by breaking up CD deposits into smaller size chunks that are separately held at different participating network banks. However, your funds continue to enjoy a single point of access at your primary bank with one statement and one interest rate. The practice is rapidly growing in popularity and I highly recommend it as a wonderful and hassle free way to diversify your banking holdings for maximum FDIC protection. Here's a list of banks that participate in the CDARS network. One downside of using a CDARS bank is that they tend to be smaller, regional size community banks. Some people like smaller community banks, the type of place where everybody knows your name. However, I highly prefer mega-corporate size banks as they tend to resonate more stability and are better capitalized in my opinion. There are only a tiny handful of large institutional banks participating in the CDARS network at this time. Furthermore, because of the CDARS network fees that banks pay for each CDARS transaction (there is no fee to the customer), CDARS deposit account interest rates tend to be lower than that offered by more competitive non-CDARS banks.

However, if I had financial assets in the neighborhood of millions of dollars and account diversification was on my mind, it is unlikely I would be spending my time worrying about FDIC insurance limits. I would probably have the bulk of my money either invested in mutual funds, index funds, money market funds, or other broadly diversified investments that have never been known to actually fail. Frankly, I don't even think broadly diversified investment assets could ever technically fail - in the worst case scenario, they would simply gradually lose their stock value over time. Buying super secure assets like U.S. Treasury Bills and Treasury Bonds would be viable alternatives for high net worth individuals as well. While U.S. Treasury products are not FDIC insured, they are fully backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government. The federal government could simply print more money if financial Armageddon necessitated that course of action.

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