Unlocking the mystery of an old safe-deposit-box key

Q: When my mother passed on more than 15 years ago, she left a key to what looked like a safe-deposit vault. I have tried, unsuccessfully, to find such a vault. I still have the key. Suggestions?
B.B., Long Beach, Calif.

A: Call banks where your mother had accounts. Look for old checks written to banks for services, including lock boxes. Since it's probably been many years since the last rental payment was made, check with the state unclaimed- property office where she last lived.

Finally, check out www.unclaimedassets.com. It conducts searches for a $24 fee.

Q: Are Muslim bank credit cards available? Islamic law allows no interest charges. How would transaction fees for Muslim cards compare with interest on US cards?
D.L., Elk Point, S.D.

A: "I know of no US bank credit-card company offering no-interest Muslim credit cards," says Lucy Lazarony, who tracks credit cards for Bankrate.com, a financial information website. After all, she says, US banks "want you to carry interest."

Some Muslim organizations provide special financing arrangements to buy a house or obtain credit. But these offers are somewhat complicated, and must be negotiated through special Muslim money groups. Some Muslims question whether using an ordinary credit card and paying the bill off each month before interest is charged violates Muslim laws against using interest–bearing financial instruments.

Q: When someone retires with a 401(k) or 403(b) plan in mutual funds, can he or she make scheduled withdrawals without resorting to an annuity? What happens when the person reaches age 70-1/2 and must take money out? If the money is moved into an annuity, must he or she pay taxes on the sum taken out of the retirement account all at once?
K.H., South Pomfret, Vt.

A: "Once you reach age 70-1/2, you are required to take a minimum distribution," based on an IRS-approved schedule, says Barry Picker, a retirement specialist and accountant in Brooklyn, N.Y. "You need not resort to an annuity."

If you move the money into an annuity, buy one within the 401(k) or 403(b) plan. If you buy outside the plan, you will pay taxes on the sum taken out. Check with your plan provider to see if any regulations in your plan run contrary to these general distribution rules, Mr. Picker adds.

Finally, if you take money out after reaching age 59-1/2 but before age 70-1/2, you can always withdraw money without resorting to an annuity, he says. You will owe taxes on the amount withdrawn, however.

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