Like one out of eight Americans, I pay a small yearly fee to rent out a safe deposit box at the local bank. The box is small, but it provides enough room for me to store a few valuables and items that I’d prefer not to lose.
Just recently, as my wife and I moved all our belongings from our previous apartment to a new home, I realized that my safe deposit key had been misplaced in the move.
Here I was, writing about the importance of safe deposit boxes, and I had broken the cardinal rule: never losing the key!
As you can imagine, panic ensued. It was a few hours before I managed to find the key at the bottom of a box of belongings, nestled with other miscellaneous objects that had been too small to deserve their own box.
The situation forced me to ask myself a question about safe deposit boxes that I hadn’t considered:
If something were to happen to me, who would be able to access the safe deposit box?
Would my spouse be able to access the safe deposit box with my key? Would the executor of my estate be able to access the safe deposit box? And what if the key was lost, as it was in those few chaotic hours during our move?
I know I’m not alone in asking these questions, so I did some digging.
Here’s what I found out:
Who Can Access a Safe Deposit Box?
It depends. Safe deposit boxes are notoriously difficult to access after someone passes, and while most require letters of administration or letters testamentary, the specific regulations differ by state.
You’d think that an executor, spouse, family member of the deceased, or anyone with a key can walk into the bank and open a safe deposit box.
But, that’s not the way it works.
In most states, safe deposit boxes are “sealed” and cannot be accessed when the original renter passes away. Even if you have a key to the safe deposit box and can show that you are either related to the deceased or an appointed representative of their estate, the financial institution where the box is located will not let you access the box.
If the box was only rented in the name of the decedent, many states will require that you undergo a lengthy legal process and receive a special court order to unseal the box. In a handful of states, providing a few documents to the financial institution is enough to gain access to the safe deposit box.
Find your state’s rules here: Safe Deposit Boxes Regulations State-by-State Guide
What if there are two renters?
When signing the lease for our safe deposit box, my spouse and I were given the option to put both of our names on the paperwork, leasing the box as joint renters.
The alternative was to just have my name on the lease, putting myself down as the sole renter. This is a common option when renting a safe deposit box, and you should put careful thought into whether you want to add a co-renter.
I know what you’re thinking: if there are two co-renters for a safe deposit box and one of the co-renters dies, the other co-renter can still access the safe deposit box’s contents, right?
Well no, not necessarily.
Co-renting rules change by state
State law determines whether a co-renter can access the safe deposit box after the death of the other co-renter.
Some states rule that jointly-rented safe deposit boxes are owned under “joint tenant with right of survivorship” laws, meaning that the surviving co-owner can access the box’s contents, but the majority of states still rule that the box is sealed after the death of one co-renter. The other co-renter must follow the state’s laws to gain access to the safe deposit box.
Why is that the case? The legal reasoning is simple: even if two individuals rent a safe deposit box together, the contents within the box might not belong to both individuals.
If one co-renter died, the other co-renter could possibly remove all the contents of the box, even if the contents were not theirs to take in the first place. Because ownership of the contents could become messy after the death of one renter, it’s easier for financial institutions to consider the boxes as “sealed” after the death of one co-renter.
Why you may consider adding a co-renter
Although adding a co-renter may not relieve the burden of undergoing a lengthy legal process to access the safe deposit box, there are still benefits to adding a co-renter’s name to the leasing agreement. One of the main benefits is that the renters will receive an additional key to the safe deposit box, reducing the possibility that the key will be lost.
What if the key is lost after the original owner passes away?
After the original renter passes away, the first step for an executor to access the safe deposit box is to locate the key. If the key cannot be located, it will be much harder— but not impossible — to access the safe deposit box’s contents.
After receiving court approval during probate and obtaining the necessary documentation to gain access to the box, the executor will likely need to coordinate with the financial institution to hire a locksmith to open the box.
The expenses incurred in this process are usually charged to the decedent’s estate, since the financial institution will not pay for the locksmith or the subsequent cost of changing the locks on the box.
What do safe deposit keys look like?
There's no one single type, but most safe deposit keys have a routing number on them.
Here are a few examples:
If you can't find the exact model, that's okay. Take your best guesses to the appropriate bank, and they should be able to help you identify what the right safe deposit key looks like.
Opening a safe deposit box is usually a small step of a much bigger process
If you’re looking for information on how to open a safe deposit box, chances are you’re dealing with someone who has passed and are currently waking up to the overwhelming and frustrating worlds of probate and estate settlement.
There is so much to do, and sometimes having a clear idea of each step is half the battle.
If that sounds like you, then you may find this interesting: