Bank Safe Deposit Box Rules & Regulations

By Charles Crawford - Updated June 16, 2017
Metal Safe Combination Lock

Safe deposit is often a bank’s most misunderstood service area. Typically, it is located far from the main floor and tucked away inside a huge vault in some distant corner of the basement. Many bank customers take safe deposit for granted. A brief review of the main rules and regulations for safe deposit can give bank customers a new appreciation for this valuable service and its place in their lives.

Rules Regarding Access

A key feature of safe deposit boxes is privacy. For this reason, there are strict rules about access. If a customer wants someone else, for example a spouse or business partner, to share access to the box, then the box must be rented jointly; both parties sign the bank’s documents together when they first rent the box. In an emergency, a renter cannot give someone else temporary access by simply handing over the key; the person would not be able to sign in correctly. Similarly, a power of attorney does not grant access to a safe deposit box to another person. Banks have rules that prohibit safe-deposit attendants from looking at the contents of customers’ boxes while they are assisting them.

Rules Regarding Contents

There are no federal or state laws concerning what cannot be stored in a safe deposit box. The only restrictions are those in the bank’s contract that the customer signs when she rents a box. Most bank contracts prohibit anything dangerous, such as explosives. There are no rules against keeping cash in safe deposit boxes.

Third-Party Access

In order for any law enforcement agency to gain access to a safe deposit box, it must persuade the appropriate court that there is “reasonable cause” to suspect that the box renter is hiding something illegal in the box such as guns, illegal drugs, or stolen property. The Internal Revenue Service can “freeze” assets, including the contents of a safe deposit box, until the tax dispute is resolved. Creditors seeking payment can do the same if they satisfy a judge that such an action is warranted.

No FDIC Insurance

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation insures only deposits in accounts at banks, such as checking accounts. Even though the word “deposit” appears in the term safe deposit box, there is no insurable deposit implied.

Rules on Abandonment

If the renter of a safe deposit box fails to pay his rental fee for the number of years set by state law and the bank is unable to notify him of the problem, the bank can declare that the box has been abandoned. Any contents will be turned over to the state, which has its own legal procedure for further handling of any abandoned property.

Death of the Box Holder

Different rules apply if the box holder dies, and these rules vary by state. Generally, a parent, spouse, adult child, or the executor of the deceased box holder’s estate can get access to the box in order to review its contents, for example, to look for the deceased’s will. The bank may provide the original will and such contents as insurance policies to these permitted persons without a court order. A court might also order the bank itself to open the box, retrieve an original will and deliver this to the custody of the court.

About the Author

Charles Crawford, a former commercial banker, has been a business writer in New York since 1990. He has produced marketing materials for an executive outplacement firm, written the quarterly newsletter of a medical nonprofit organization and created financing proposals/business plans. Crawford holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master of Science in international affairs from Florida State University.

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