How To Access The Safe Deposit Box Of A Deceased Loved One

To ensure the safety and discrete storage of private objects, some people employ the use of safe deposit boxes. While this can be a prudent storage method, as banks and financial institutions that provide safe deposit boxes have tight security measures, the estate planning implications of safe deposit boxes are often not taken into account by depositors and their families. The agreement between the depositor in a safe deposit box and the financial institution in which the safe deposit box is located is a lease agreement, therefore, the financial institution sets the terms of the lease agreement. Upon the death of a depositor, or co-depositor, in a safe deposit box, as per the lease agreement, the financial institution might seal the safe deposit box. In this case, probate proceedings will take place, and, especially if family members or beneficiaries do not know the location or presence of a safe deposit box, can be a lengthy and stressful process for already bereaved individuals. Before your passing, estate planning is a key step in ensuring the timely distribution of your assets as you see fit. As part of your estate planning, any safe deposit box you have should be made known to your next-of-kin or beneficiaries and should be made part of any estate plan you create. In the course of this process, having an experienced estate planning attorney will ensure that any vital objects in your safe deposit box are retrieved in an orderly and timely fashion and limit the exposure of your family or beneficiaries to any surrogate’s court.

Safe Deposit Boxes: Access and Retrieval After A Loved One’s Death

How To Access A Safe Deposit Box

First, it is important to know whether the decedent had a safe deposit box, and if they did, its location. This is crucial, especially if the decedent stored vital documents such as a will, insurance policy, or deed to a funeral plot inside the box. When a depositor dies and the contents of their safe deposit box are not retrieved, the financial institution where the box is located might turn over the contents of the box to the state after a given time. In this eventuality, the contents will be hard to retrieve. To avoid the potential situation where a box cannot be located and the contents are irretrievable, ensure that you let any beneficiaries or next-of-kin know where your safe deposit box is located.

If you know the existence and whereabouts of a safe deposit box, accessing it in New York is relatively straightforward, though it is a multi-step process that will take time. After the death of a depositor or co-depositor, financial institutions often seal the box. At that point, in line with the surrogate’s court Procedures Act 2003, an “interested party”, such as a spouse, beneficiary, or fiduciary, can access the safe deposit box for certain purposes, such as the inspection of the contents therein or the retrieval of important documents. Access to a safe deposit box, however, is not simply granted by presenting a death certificate to the financial institution. An interested party must submit a “Petition to Examine Safe Deposit Box” to the surrogate’s court of the county where the decedent resided at the time of their death. In addition, a petitioner must submit a death certificate and pay applicable fees.

How To Retrieve The Contents Of A Safe Deposit Box

If the surrogate’s court grants the petition, the petitioner will receive an “Order to Examine Safe Deposit Box” and an “Inventory Form” to catalog what they find in the box, which must be filed with the court. When going to access the contents of a safe deposit box, bring the order, the inventory form, the deceased party’s original death certificate, a valid ID card, and the keys to the box. If you do not have the keys to the box, be prepared to pay a fee to the financial institution because they will need to break open the box. Once you present the order to the financial institution, you will be permitted to open the box or have it opened for you. It is important to note that once the box is opened, you are only allowed to examine the contents, not remove them. If a will is found, an officer of the financial institution must file it with the surrogate’s court. Insurance policies must be delivered to beneficiaries. Deeds to funeral plots must be given to the person handling the funeral of the deceased. Cash must be counted by an officer of the financial institution, who will then file the amount with the Department of Tax and Finance. All other contents must be inventoried and filed with a court.

After all documents are delivered to the correct authorities and the remaining contents are inventoried with a court, the interested party can then proceed to retrieve the remaining contents. There are several ways to retrieve the contents of a safe deposit box. An individual can be named a fiduciary of the estate of the decedent. If the decedent left a will, one can obtain “Letters Testamentary”. If there is no will, one can obtain “Letters of Administration”, as the contents of the box will have to go through the probate process and have an administrator appointed for them. If an estate is below $50,000, it is considered a small estate and one can obtain a “Small Estate Affidavit”. In all instances, a petitioner must file with the court to receive these documents and authorization to empty a safe deposit box.

Who Can Inherit A Safe Deposit Box

The process of accessing a safe deposit box and retrieving its content is relatively straightforward but can be time consuming, especially if the deceased depositor did not leave a will. With an estate plan, accessing a safe deposit box is easier, but it must be known that no one “inherits” a safe deposit box. A depositor can list a safe deposit box on a will and make it known how they want the contents distributed, but the will still needs to go through the probate process and all of the above procedures must still be observed. Therefore, it is advised that during the estate planning process, a key is given to a trustworthy beneficiary or fiduciary of the estate for easier access. It is also advised that during any frank discussions about your estate, you tell beneficiaries about any safe deposit box you might have, its contents, and the financial institution it is located at. To receive counsel on how to handle a safe deposit box as part of your estate planning and for any other estate planning needs, call the Law Office of Inna Fershteyn at (718) 333-2394.

Law Office of Inna Fershteyn and Associates, P.C.
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