Safe deposit boxes are widely used to store important documents, including wills, deeds, birth certificates, savings bonds, stock certificates, and cash. Other common contents of safe deposit boxes are precious metals, jewelry, coin collections, gems, and family heirlooms. Safe deposit boxes often create challenges for family members when the owner of the box passes away. This article explores the safe deposit box problem and options for titling boxes, and suggests that you consider whether a safe deposit box is really a necessary part of your estate.
In most cases, safe deposit boxes are held in the name of an individual. By its very nature, a safe deposit box is intended to prevent other people from having access to its valuable contents. That means if the owner dies, the bank may deny family members access to the safe deposit box unless they have proper credentials. Typically, the bank wants to see an order from the probate court appointing a family member as Personal Representative of the Estate of the deceased box holder before they provide access. This can create a real problem if the original will appointing a Personal Representative is kept in the safe deposit box, because the probate case cannot be commenced without the will, and the will isn’t available to the family to start the probate action. DO NOT STORE YOUR ORIGINAL WILL OR TRUST IN A SAFE DEPOSIT BOX UNLESS YOU HAVE GIVEN SOMEONE ELSE LEGAL ACCESS TO THE BOX WHEN YOU DIE.
One option is to hold title to the box in a co-ownership arrangement, allowing the co-owner to access the box on the death of the first owner. Married couples typically put the name of both spouses as owners of the box. This is helpful unless both spouses pass away. Sometimes the name of one child is added as an owner. This can also be a problem because the law presumes that the last surviving co-owner is also the co-owner of everything in the box. In other words, the last living owner has the right to assert sole ownership of the valuables in the box at the expense of other children who were not named as box owners.
Some banks allow you to appoint an agent who has the right to access the box. The agent is not the presumed owner of the box contents, even though they have been given legal access. This arrangement will work until the owner dies. An agency agreement usually ends upon the death of the box owner and the bank will then deny access to the agent.
Some banks allow you to name one or more beneficiaries on a box. This means family members cannot access the box during your lifetime, but upon death the contents pass to the named beneficiaries, who are then given access by the bank. This is a possible solution; however, access to the box would be denied to others if you become incapacitated, and not all banks provide for a box beneficiary.
Box Owned By Living Trust
Another option is for the box to be owned in the name of your revocable living trust. Since a trust specifically names the successor trustees upon your death or disability, if the box is owned by a trust the bank would give access to a successor trustee upon death or disability.
Do You Need a Safe Deposit Box?
Often, safe deposit boxes have outlived their usefulness. People often forget what they own in their box, and when they check them they may find papers that aren’t all that important and little else of much value. Jewelry in safe deposit boxes may have sentimental family value but no real financial value that requires safekeeping. We suggest that you occasionally re-visit whether a safe deposit box is necessary in your particular circumstances.
Options for Ownership of Safe Deposit Boxes in Alaska
Here is a chart outlining titling options for institutions in Alaska that offer safe deposit boxes. It is a good idea to review the paper-work you have completed for your box and speak with a bank manager to ensure that you understand exactly who has access and under what circumstances that access might be revoked or restricted.