Coping with the death of a loved one is difficult enough, but adding the complexities of estate law to the mix can be downright frustrating. Even simple tasks like accessing a dead relative's safe deposit box involve paperwork and delays, and the specific regulations governing box access can vary by state and even by bank. Fortunately, there are ways to manage this process.
Go to the bank where the box was kept, and ask the bank manager if the box is valid and who is authorized to sign for access. Be aware that some banks will not share this information, but they may confirm information already on file. Ask the manager if any special procedures or paperwork are necessary to open the box under bank policy and state statute. Often, a death certificate and some legal document authorizing access will be necessary, but each bank and each state have slightly different standards.
Obtain a certified copy of your relative's death certificate, to prove that he has died.
Determine who in the family is appointed to manage financial and legal matters for the deceased, or who has been named executor in the will. This person must authorize any access to the safe deposit box through an affidavit. Many states allow a spouse, with death certificate, to have unlimited access to the box even if the spouse was not included as a co-lessee.
If a person dies without a spouse and without a will or trust in place, then many banks or states require a probate judge to issue an order granting access to the safe deposit box to a person identified by the judge.
Bring any documentation that the bank requested to the bank manager, to gain access to the safe deposit box.
- Safe deposit boxes are a valuable asset, so do not cut corners in your attempt to access the box, e.g., by forging signatures or bypassing the probate court. Follow all bank rules and state laws precisely, to avoid potential prosecution for fraud or theft. Each state's specific laws vary, and each bank's access policies vary, so consult with a competent attorney if you have any questions.
- Make sure everyone in the family who leases a safe deposit box has a properly signed authorization on file with the bank granting access to a designated person. Some states require a person with power of attorney to be specifically authorized to access a safe deposit box.
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