If your loved one died unexpectedly or without an end-of-life plan, you might be left with a mess. Tying up the financial affairs of a person who didn't leave meticulous records or an assigned executor may take months, depending on the complexity and size of the estate.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Happens to a Safe Deposit Box When Someone Dies?
- Different Ways to Access a Deceased Loved One’s Safe Deposit Box
Some families find themselves in a difficult position of knowing that their loved one had a safe deposit box but not knowing the details behind where it is located and how to get into it.
Let us teach you how to find a safety deposit box of the deceased. Unfortunately, the solution may not be as cut and dried as you would like.
What Happens to a Safe Deposit Box When Someone Dies?
Here's what can happen to a safe deposit box when someone dies.
1. The deceased's family members may know about the safe deposit box and follow the appropriate guidelines to access the contents
This is the best-case scenario for your situation. We will discuss what most institutions require to open a deceased family member's safe deposit box in the next section of the article.
2. The family members may not know that the safe deposit box exists
If this happens, they may discover that their loved one had a safe deposit box when the bank attempts to notify the deceased that storage fees aren’t getting paid. Once the family finds that the safe deposit box exists, they can learn how to access it by visiting the institution.
Family members may uncover this by looking at their loved ones' bank statements. They may notice a fee deducted periodically (perhaps only once a year) for the lease of a safe deposit box. Once they know that the box exists, they can visit the institution to learn more about accessing the contents.
3. The family members may suspect that a safe deposit box exists but may not find any records or key
Since some banks only allow customers to lease safe deposit boxes, visit your loved one's local branch and ask the manager whether or not your loved one had a box. They may not be able to disclose this information, depending upon the local laws and bank rules.
4. The family may not know that the safe deposit box exists and they may not receive any notice from the bank about the box
If no one claims the contents, they may be turned over to the state. Each state handles abandoned property differently.
If you think that your loved one could have had a safe deposit box but you were unable to find proof of its existence, you may want to periodically inquire with the unclaimed property administration of the state where your loved one lived.
It may be years before anything turns up in your search. After all, your loved one may have paid for a long-term lease on the box. After the lease expired, the bank may make several attempts to reach out to the safe deposit box owner. After this period, which could last years, the contents would be turned over to the state.
All of the steps in this process can take a long time, so you might want to check in with the state periodically.
Different Ways to Access a Deceased Loved One's Safe Deposit Box
The rules on how to access a deceased person's safe deposit box vary from state to state. Some states are more lenient than others on who can have access after the death of the holder of the box. The wording of the safe deposit box leases may also vary, depending on the institution.
To learn how to access your loved one's safe deposit box, visit the institution where it is located. You may want to bring a copy of your loved one's death certificate, your loved one’s will, and your ID. Also, bring a copy of the key if you know where it is. Explain your situation and an employee will be able to tell you how you can gain access.
Here are some typical scenarios that you may encounter.
1. Your loved one gave you access to the safe deposit box
In some cases, the deceased would have planned for his or her death by adding another person's name to his or her safety deposit box. This can be done by adding a person to the signature card and either offering a copy of the key or telling that person where the key is located. This may not be the ideal choice for family members who are greedy or untrustworthy.
2. Your loved one gave you access to the safe deposit box contingent upon death
Another option is that the safety deposit box holder could allow the other person access only after death.
You may feel like this is a preferred method of giving your loved one access to your important documents but be aware of the complications that may arise. The bank may require that the family member provide a death certificate to access the safe deposit box. It takes time for death certificates to be issued, so the family member may not be able to access end-of-life plans or information on cemetery plots in time.
In this scenario, the family member may also need to provide proof of ID and the second key for the safe deposit box to be opened. If you can't find the key, you may need to pay the bank to take the necessary steps to open the box. This may cost you several hundred dollars.
3. Your loved one's state of residence may allow you access to the safe deposit box based on your relationship to the deceased
Generally, a parent, spouse, adult child, or the executor of the deceased box holder's estate can access the safe deposit box to review its contents and to look for the deceased's will.
Whether you can keep the documents in the safe deposit box after you review them depends on the rules in your state.
4. You may have to provide the institution with the appropriate legal document saying you can access the safety deposit box based on the wording of the will or the trust
Once you have access to the will, the individual who is named the executor may gain access to the safety deposit box once the court gives a proper affidavit. This, again, depends on the state.
In general, having a power of attorney does not give you access to your loved one's safe deposit box.
5. You may have to ask the court to give you access to your loved one's safe deposit box
Some banks or states will require a probate judge to issue an order allowing access to a safe deposit box. This access may or may not allow you to remove items from the box.
Even as each state's laws vary (as well as the rules of each institution), you may find that some banks (and individual employees) are more lenient with access. Some institutions may be less likely to follow the rules than others.
Make Things Easier for Your Loved Ones
As you consider your own end-of-life plans, think about how you can make things easier for your loved ones.
Think about how you can set up your estate so that the transfer of finances happens smoothly and efficiently. Talk with an estate attorney to set up a will or trust if that is recommended for your situation.
Think about how your loved ones will gain access to your essential documents. Will you leave them in the care of your lawyer? If so, you need to make sure your loved ones have the contact information for your attorney.
Perhaps you plan to leave your important documents, such as life insurance policies and car titles, in a locked safe or file cabinet. If this is your plan, make sure your family members have a key so that they can retrieve the documents in a timely manner.
As we mentioned previously, some people think that the best place to keep their documents is in a safe deposit box. While this certainly guarantees the safety of those items, it would be prudent to understand how and when your loved ones will be able to retrieve those documents after your death.
Information regarding your cemetery plots or pre-paid cremation will do your loved ones no use if they can't access that information without having a copy of your death certificate.
- "Bank Safe Deposit Box Rules & Regulations" legalbeagle.com, legalbeagle.com/6857297-bank-deposit-box-rules-regulations.html. 18 December 2020.
- Ferris, David. "How to Find Out If Someone Had a Safe Deposit Box." 8 November 2018. pocketsense.com/out-someone-safe-deposit-box-8538750.html
- Gillikin, Jason. "How to Gain Access to a Dead Relative's Safe Deposit Box." Legal Beagle. legalbeagle.com/12723951-how-to-close-bank-accounts-for-the-deceased-without-a-will-or-probate.html. 18 December 2020.