What is a Safe Deposit Box, What Should Go in the Box and Who Can Access the Box?

A safe deposit box, often incorrectly referred to as a safety deposit box, is usually a metal box that is kept in a vault within a bank or other financial institution.  You can rent a box from the bank and will usually pay a yearly rental fee based on the size of the box.  Access to the box will be limited to the hours the bank is open, and you will have to go into the vault with a bank employee because the boxes generally take two keys to access - one that belongs to you and one that belongs to the bank.  Unless you have a joint owner of the box or otherwise have authorized access to another person, you are the only person that can get into your safe deposit box.

What should you put in the box?  Some common items that are stored in a safe deposit box are car titles, title to real estate, collectibles and expensive jewelry that you do not wear often.  In addition, adoption papers, marriage licenses, and other documents that you might want to make sure you don’t lose can be kept in the safe deposit box.  However, you should keep copies of all of those documents in other places so they can be found easily if something happens to you.

We do not recommend that our clients keep their original wills, powers of attorney, advance directives for healthcare or revocable living trusts  in the safe deposit box.  It may be too difficult for your loved ones to get to those documents when they need them, so we recommend the documents be kept in a fire proof box or some other safe place where they can be easily accessed. In addition,  we don’t recommend keeping passports or any other document in a safe deposit box  that you may need to access in a hurry or during times when the bank may be closed.

We also do not recommend keeping large amounts of cash in the safe deposit box because there is no insurance that protects the cash as there is for money in bank accounts.

If you become incapacitated or die, it may be very difficult for someone to access the contents of your safe deposit box.  A court can issue an order for access to the contents in an emergency, and can also issue a search warrant if there is suspicion of a crime.   At your death, the probate court can issue an order to allow someone access to the safe deposit box to search for important papers.  However, the order will generally allow access to the box while accompanied by a bank employee and will allow a written inventory of the box, but will not allow any documents to be removed from the box.   Unless your spouse or children are co-owners of the box, they do not automatically have access to the box.  Your personal representative or executor can access the box, but only after they have been appointed as the personal representative by the probate court judge and can present their letters testamentary or letters of administration to the bank. (See "Estate Administration Basics") 

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The Elrod-Hill Law Firm,LLC assists clients with Estate Planning, Veterans Benefits, Medicaid, Elder Care Law, Probate, Special Needs Planning and Pet Trusts in the North Atlanta area including the counties of Dekalb, Gwinnett and Fulton.

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