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I opened a checking account in California and had the option to link my SSN (Social Security Number) to my bank account. The banker refused to tell me the pros and cons of linking my SSN to my bank account, on the grounds that it would constitute legal advice. Is that so?

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    Wait, are they giving you the option to open an account without a SSN? I've always been required to provide one. – childofsoong Jun 6 '15 at 18:53
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    @soong Yes. I opened a Bank of America Core Checking Account, no SSN asked, only passport. – Franck Dernoncourt Jun 6 '15 at 19:22
  • @soong: Must be because that account doesn't pay interest, so there is no potentially reportable tax event. – feetwet Jul 13 '15 at 14:30
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Financial institutions in the US are subject to regulations that restrict what sorts of things non-licensed employees can talk about with clients and advice they can give about structuring accounts and payments in ways that might avoid triggering money laundering alarms.

I think this employee was being cautious about getting into a gray area and phrased the reason they couldn't talk about it poorly. The reason they were restricted from giving you an answer could be a legality, but not necessarily because they are giving you legal advice.

  • It's not necessarily legal advice, but rather financial advice that is regulated. I know this is the case in Australia. – jimsug Jul 14 '15 at 0:17
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    @jimsug I was referring to financial advice - there are legal reasons that a front-line customer support agent at a bank would not feel comfortable talking about certain pros/cons type topics that touch on reporting requirements. I think the representative tried to say "I can't legally give you that information." and it came across as "I can't give you legal advice." Most of the industry has probably just finished their annual compliance training, so maybe this agent was a little scared of saying the wrong thing and ending up in prison or paying huge fines. – ColleenV parted ways Jul 14 '15 at 0:37
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It depends on the advice! Which you didn't get so we can't know.

But no, it's not. If that's all you asked. Absolutely not.

  • Could you expand on this more? Just saying "no, it's not" isn't really helpful at all. Do you know the pros and cons yourself that'd you be able to validate that statement by explaining what the pros and cons actually are? How do you know there's no legal advice in them? – animuson Jun 7 '15 at 16:53
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    @animuson there is nothing to expand on. I'm sure there are legal pros and cons. However, not all pros and cons are legal. Therefore asking a banker the pros and cons is not requesting legal advice. Is asking a plumber the pros and cons of an auto-flushing toilet asking legal advice? It's all hypothetical and worse, speculative and imaginary. It's laziness on the part if the banker just like if the plumber said, "I can't answer because that's legal advice." – jqning Jun 7 '15 at 17:56
  • But without further explanation, you're just accusing someone of being lazy without providing any real information. Not providing a SSN can have different affects on your taxes, which in general is a very touchy area that almost no one will even touch with a 10-foot pole. I don't know all of the pros and cons myself, but just the mention of taxes would cause me not to want to talk about them at all. – animuson Jun 7 '15 at 17:58
  • Then don't mention taxes. Don't mention the law. Mention the pros and cons that are not legal advice. – jqning Jun 7 '15 at 18:03
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    Geez man, think about what YOU are saying, you are saying that if the answer to ANY question MIGHT have a legal component a person should not provide ANY answer for fear of "intentionally leaving out relevant information." Read the question again. The question, in and of itself, is not asking for legal advice. If I ask my gardener the pros and cons of planting marijuana on my front lawn should he refuse to answer because it's asking for legal advice? NO because I am not asking for legal advice. I'm asking for gardening advice. Tell me about the gardening part. I mean the banking part. – jqning Jun 7 '15 at 22:49
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Probably not legal advice. More likely any answer to your question could lead into an explanation of tax consequences, which tend to depend on specifics of your tax situation.

Giving tax advice in itself cannot violate a law the way unlicensed dispensation of legal advice can. However, one can in theory incur liability for improper tax advice. Also, CPAs and individuals qualified to prepare tax returns are subject to IRS rules on giving tax advice.

Anyone can provide legal and tax information (as opposed to advice), but those who are close to professionals that can be sanctioned or sued for malpractice tend to err on the side of not doing so outside of a proper client relationship.

So back to your original question: A bank can (and I would argue should) communicate the general consequences of linking a SSN to an account. (In fact, it's not hard to imagine the FTC, OCC, or some other regulator at some point requiring them to disclose how they use your SSN.)

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"Pros and cons" means you are asking for an opinion to help you come to a decision. The banker has no basis for understanding your circumstance. He wants to be your service provider once you have decided on the specifics of the service; he doesn't want to be your agent to decide those specifics. What if he misunderstood your circumstances and misled you? If one of your "pros" would be to make tracking cash flows harder (if you are say Denny Hastert) then that gets into legal advice. Does your banker know if you are embroiled in a hush money scandal? If not, this isnt a "pro" and there probably wouldn't say it, misleading Mr Speaker!
If you ask for the implications or next steps or what it means for specific IRS forms should you choose no SSN, do they answer your direct question?

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