July 10, 2018
Safe deposit boxes safeguard valuables and important papers, but they have increasingly become an issue in untangling even the simplest estate.
Under current law, when an owner of a safe deposit box dies, even if that box is jointly owned with a spouse or child, access to the box will be denied until a court-issued document, such as Letters Testamentary, Letters of Administration or some other court order is obtained allowing the Executor or another court-authorized person to access the safe deposit box. This is typically followed by the requirement of a second court order allowing removal of the contents from the box.
We recently had a case where a surviving wife was first required to file a petition with the court requesting that she be allowed to open and inventory the safe deposit box that she owned jointly with her deceased husband, and then the bank required our client to commence a small estate court proceeding in order to remove the contents from the safe deposit box.
We have experienced other instances where a surviving joint owner, such as a child, was denied access to the safe deposit box. Securing authorization from the Court to open a safe deposit box can be a costly proposition and it is especially galling when the decedent carefully planned out his or her estate to avoid probate or other court intervention in the affairs of the estate.
Most of us have little reason to maintain a safe deposit box because the current box’s contents can readily be stored elsewhere. We recommend clients and friends to consider giving up that safe deposit box and instead consider storing valuables and important documents in a fire-proof box or vault in the home. You may save your estate thousands of dollars and lots of aggravation by turning in that box!