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The Good, The Bad and The Ugly About Safe Deposit Boxes

Clients often ask us if they should keep their original, signed estate planning documents in their bank’s safe deposit box.

There are pros and cons to keeping original documents in a bank’s safe deposit box. It’s certainly secure from nefarious actors. It’s often the safest place to keep the documents so that they’re not susceptible to the elements. However, clients often don’t plan properly to ensure that their trustees, executors, and agents are able to get access to the box when they need to.

True Crain & Wooley client story: Recently, someone died and no will was found. He did, however, have a safe deposit box at a large, national bank. There was no signatory on the box other than the decedent. We motioned to the court to get access to inspect the safe deposit box for a will. The judge granted the motion and signed an order giving the bank instructions to allow the lead attorney to inspect the box. However, this was not the end of the process. The attorney went to the bank with the signed order from the judge. The bank informed the attorney that a committee at the bank would have to decide whether or not to grant access even though the judge’s order demanded it. The attorney then had to schedule a time for a conference call with the bank committee to review the order. Once the order was reviewed and approved by the committee, the attorney had to schedule an appointment to inspect the box at a time when a specialized bank manager could be present. After all of that, there was no will in the box. This process cost the estate a couple thousand dollars in attorney and court fees and delayed proceedings by about 5 weeks.

What is the moral of this story? If you chose to use a safe deposit box, make sure that there is a co-owner listed AND that this co-owner has a key to the box. We would recommend the co-owner be a trustee, executor or agent.

CAUTION: realize that naming multiple box owners gives multiple people access to the box at any time for any reason. Keep this in mind when assessing if you should keep original estate planning documents in a safe deposit box.

Stay tuned for our next blog which highlights how best to store your documents.

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