If something happens to you, what should—and shouldn’t—you have stored there?

You can rent a safe deposit box at your bank for storing just about anything you want. There are no federal laws, and few state laws, governing the content of safe deposit boxes. Your bank’s contract with you is the best source for identifying any content restrictions.

Who has access to your box—and when?

Access to the box is controlled by you. You can be the sole owner or you can establish access with others, such as your spouse, other family or friends.

It is important to note that providing access to others also conveys legal ownership of the box contents. Any owner is able to access the box and remove items as they wish. For that reason, carefully consider your plan for access.

If you become incapacitated, the following people will have access to your box:

1. Any co-owner. Co-owners can continue to access the box if you’re incapacitated.

2. Agent for finances. If you’ve granted safe-deposit-box access on a durable power of attorney for finances (or, in the right circumstances, your living trust), your agent will have access. The agent’s access will be immediate or upon verification of your incapacitation, depending on your provision when you made the document.

3. Representative with court order. If there is no co-owner or agent for finances, someone representing you (probably family member or friend) will have to seek a court order to gain access.

When you die, the following people will have access:

1. Any co-owner. Co-owners can continue to access the box, unless it is sealed by the state (see below).

2. Executor or successor trustee. Either your executor (of your will) or successor trustee (of your living trust) can gain access, once he or she has a copy of your will or trust and a certified copy of your death certificate. If the box is sealed (see below), there may be a few weeks delay.

3. Representative with court order. If there is no co-owner, executor or successor trustee, someone representing you (your estate) will have to seek a court order to gain access.

Some states “seal” safe deposit boxes for a few weeks following the death of an owner. During this time, the taxing authority assesses the box contents for inheritance tax. In these states, until the assessment is complete, co-owners or representatives cannot access the box without a court order.

What should you store there?

So, given the rights and timing of access, you should store only those valuables not needed upon your incapacitation or death—for days or for weeks, given your state’s laws regarding sealing safe deposit boxes. Such valuables might include:

• Cash, jewelry, collectibles
• Photos of insured items—home, contents, jewelry, artwork
• Certified copies of birth, marriage, and death certificates
• Will, trust, or marital property agreements (if you’re holding the original documents)
• Stock certificates or bonds (if you’re holding the originals)

What shouldn’t you store there?

Don’t use your safe deposit box to store items your loved ones will need immediately upon your incapacitation or death. Consider these scenarios:

• Bob is in a serious accident late on Wednesday before Thanksgiving. His daughter is the agent on Bob’s health care directives and his durable power of attorney for finance. To best manage his medical care and expenses, she needs both documents. If they’re locked up in a bank that is closed until Monday, she’s out of luck.

• Mary passes away the same afternoon. Her son is responsible for Mary’s funeral, and he knows that she had carefully documented her wishes—including burial within 48 hours. If the documents outlining plans and prepaid arrangements are in Mary’s safe deposit box, unavailable until Monday, he will have to do his best (with added expense and sorrow).

In many states, someone can access the box within a week or two, as described above. In other states, it will be several weeks. These will be very long days and weeks for those caring for you or making your final arrangements.

A convenient and safe alternative to a safe deposit box is a secure home safe. If you go this route, ensure that your safe is fireproof (that is, resisting high temperatures for reasonable duration), water-resistant, sufficiently large for your storage needs and bolted to the floor.

While this alternative may sound like a lot of effort, it will pay dividends in convenience. With a home safe, you can store all of your valuables—including those items you shouldn’t store in a bank’s safe deposit box. You can get to them easily, at any time, and your loved ones will have ready access when needed.


Melanie Cullen is the author of Get It Together: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won’t Have To (Nolo), a workbook/CD-ROM for preparing and organizing your important records—for yourself and for your loved ones. She is a management consultant with TerraSys Consulting, Inc. and serves on the Projects@Work editorial board. She holds an MBA from the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University.

Image Source: stock.xchng/petr0

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Comment by Cathy Fullarton on July 23, 2010 at 9:41am
We’ve had a safe deposit box for a few years now. I like knowing that I have secure copies of important docs. I have duplicate originals of docs like birth certs and marriage certs – just paid extra for ‘em. And that the really nice jewelry I never wear anyway is as safe as can be. Thanks Melanie for this essay I totally agree!
Comment by Pam on June 24, 2009 at 4:07pm
I'm in B.C. Canada. My bank/credit union told me upon the death of myself or husband our safety deposit box is closed by the bank. The bank first goes into it and any monies amount will be taxed, than it will be released to next of kin / attorney. So it not a good place to store monies that u have already been taxed on.

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