A safe deposit box is a great place to keep your valuables secure during your lifetime. Not everyone considers what will happen to the box’s contents after they pass away. Careful consideration now can prevent serious headaches for your loved ones after your death.
California law allows for a safe deposit box that is in only your name to be accessed for purposes of searching for a will or a trust. Those wishing to access the box must provide to the bank (1) the key to the box, (2) a death certificate or a written statement of death from the coroner, treating physician, or hospital where death occurred, and (3) proof of identity. However, many bank officers are unaware of this law, and turn the loved ones away, empty handed. In some cases the loved ones require an attorney’s assistance to negotiate with the bank to recognize and comply with this law. If they have no key, access will take even longer and will require a court order.
Once relatives gain access to the safe deposit box with a key, their options are limited. The bank will supervise them when they open the box and permit them to make an inventory of its contents. They can remove any wills or trusts from the box but must make photocopies of these documents to leave there. Relatives then must deliver any wills they found to the probate court. They cannot keep anything else from the box. To remove anything else from the box, they or the executor named in the will must ask the probate court for a grant of probate and appointment of executor. (California Probate Code § 331.)
People planning their estates wisely can avoid all of these safe deposit box complications. First, if you have a safe deposit box in your name only, make sure your relatives know about the box and can find the key after you pass away. You may consider leaving written instructions in an obvious place, such as your desk, indicating where relatives can find the key and the box. Taking steps to make the key available is especially important if you store your will or trust documents in the box. You might consider keeping them elsewhere.
Second, consider using a safe deposit box that more than one person can access. Many people share a box with their spouse. If your spouse is alive when you pass away, he or she can access the box with somewhat fewer complications than described above. You should, however, expressly agree that the box’s contents are joint property. You may have done this when you both signed the bank’s form agreement when you opened the safe deposit account.
Third, consider an option that eliminates most complications – transfer the safe deposit box to your living trust before your death. Without any need for probate, photocopies, or death certificates, the successor trustee of your trust can gain access to the box. The successor trustee will just need to show the bank that he or she is the successor trustee.
No matter who has access to your safe deposit box during your lifetime, realize that gaining access to it after you pass away could pose a great challenge for your relatives. Careful and thoughtful estate planning can ease the process.
Want your estate plan to include information about your safe deposit box? Angela Klenk, Esq. and the team at Beach Cities Estate Law couple personalized attention to your estate plan with big law firm experience for a winning combination to give you peace of mind. To schedule a case evaluation, visit Beach Cities Estate Law online or call Angela’s office at (424) 400-2125.