Safe Deposit Boxes

Do you have a safe deposit box?  If so, do you know what is in it?  Do you need it? 

In my years of estate administrations, I have seen safe deposit boxes containing very valuable items such as jewelry, coins, silver and cash all the way to empty utility envelopes and the “stuffers” that we used to get every month. 

Thoughts on safe deposit boxes have changed over the years by both the people who rent boxes as well as the financial institutions. 

So, what should you keep in a safe deposit box?  Here are some things to consider:

  • First and foremost, you should only keep items in a safe deposit box that cannot be or would be difficult to replace. For instance, fine jewelry that is not worn very often, collector items and documents that, without an original, would present problems. 
  • Cash held in a safe deposit box does nothing for you except enable you to retrieve cash without any tracing.  However, even with low interest rates, wouldn’t it be better if your cash was in an account that earned at least a little interest?
  • Some of the best items to be protected in a safe deposit box would be birth, death, adoption, military, marriage, divorce, citizenship records; legal documents that are not filed with a county or state office that would be difficult to recreate (deeds and mortgages for real estate are filed with the local counties and once filed, the original is not as important as copies are available from the county); and motor vehicle titles (however, if you lose one, it can be replaced with some patience and persistence). 
  • Sentimental family mementoes may be irreplaceable and you may wish to preserve them in a safe deposit box. 
  • If you are storing valuable items in a safe deposit box, do you have them insured?  The banking institution does not insure them and it is your responsibility to have them insured against theft or casualty loss.

Things that should NOT be kept in a safe deposit box include:

  • Cash
  • Letter of last instruction, living will/health care directive, power of attorney.  If these items are needed, they are not easily accessible if held in a safe deposit box due to the open hours of the financial institution.
  • There is much support and opposition as to whether a Last Will and Testament should be kept in a safe deposit box.  It has been long standing that in the event of a death, the next of kin should be able to access the decedent’s safe deposit box with a death certificate and identification so that a Will, cemetery deed and life insurance policy could be retrieved.  However, some financial institutions now require a court order in order to access a safe deposit box before the appointment of an estate representative.
  • With the need to provide more forms of identification, a passport kept in a safe deposit box may not be as accessible as desired. 

So, what should you do?  First of all, evaluate your situation.  Do you have a spouse?  Do you live alone?  Where is the best location for you to protect your “valuables or important items”?  With regard to estate planning documents – wills, powers of attorney, living wills – some attorneys will offer the added service of keeping the originals.  Many law offices utilize digital memorialization of their estate planning documents and could issue a certified copy of the same if needed.  Where is your safe deposit box located?  Would a fireproof safe/box be sufficient? 

Whatever you decide is the best option for you, make certain that a trusted person is aware of the location of your important documents if access to them is needed. 

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About the Author

Kay Sowa is a paralegal in the Trusts and Estates Group at Capehart & Scatchard, P.A. She is an IRS Enrolled Agent, an Accredited Estate Planner®, and a Certified Trust and Fiduciary Advisor. She oversees the trust and estate administration practice for the firm. She is an accomplished author and lecturer who has frequently spoken on behalf of a number of organizations including the National Business Institute and the Institute of Paralegal Education.

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