Opening a Safe Deposit Box After Death
Banks often seal safe deposit boxes following the death of an owner (or co-owner). Pursuant to SCPA 2003, An “interested party” (e.g., spouse, beneficiary, fiduciary) may access the box for certain purposes, (e.g.: inspection of assets, and retrieval of a Last Will and Testament, life insurance, or burial plot). Here’s how:
Identify the location of the Safe Deposit Box You Believe to Be holding Decedent’s Assets.
Look through the Decedent’s papers and speak with people familiar with the Decedent’s financial affairs. If you are not able to do so, contact financial institutions near Decedent residence or last known place of business. Banks may be reluctant to respond but be persistent – ask to speak with the branch manager and advise the branch manager that you are the Decedent’s personal representative/spouse/beneficiary and need to know for purposes of obtaining a Court Order whether Decedent had a safe deposit box.
Obtain Permission from the Court to Open the Box
In New York, Surrogate’s Court Procedures Act Section 2001 sets forth the rules regarding opening Safe Deposit Boxes. Pursuant to this article, an individual should go to the Court in the County where Decedent died and request a Petition to open the box. Check your county’s local website to see if there are any specific rules or other forms that need to be filled out. (For example, the Queens County Surrogate’s Court Petition to Open the Safe Deposit Box has a different format than the NY County Petition. If you are unable to check using the computer, you can also go to the Miscellaneous Department of the Surrogate’s Court in the County where the Decedent died and ask for the “Petition to Open the Safe Deposit Box.” You will fill out the relevant paperwork, including the Petition, and the Proposed Order. The clerks will review your papers, ask you to pay the relevant fees ($20 for the petition + $6 per certificate to present to the bank) and send your paperwork to the Judge. The Judge will then review the paperwork, and if acceptable, will sign the Order allowing you to open the box. Along with the signed Order, you will also be given a form called an “Inventory.” You will have to report your findings of the contents of the box on this form.
Review the Contents of the Box
Once you have obtained the Order allowing you to open the box, you should contact the financial institution or institutions where the box is located and set up a time to inspect the box. When you go to the bank, bring with you the signed Order, an original Death Certificate, your identification, the keys to the box (if you have them), and the Inventory form that the Court provided you.. If you do not have the keys, then the financial institution will have to drill the lock to the box and will charge you a fee. The fee to break the box can be a couple of hundred dollars. The box should be opened in front of you and an officer (or sometimes two) of the financial institution. If there is cash in the box, the officer of the financial institution will have to count the cash and will need to submit paperwork to the Department of Tax and Finance with the amount of cash in the box. The contents of the box should then be inventoried. If there is an original Last Will and Testament in the box, then it should be sent to the Courthouse where you filed the Petition. If there is a life insurance policy with a beneficiary designation, then the life insurance policy should be given to that beneficiary. If there is a burial plot deed, then that should be turned over to the person responsible for the funeral. All other documents and assets should be returned to the box after they have been inventoried. You are not allowed to remove any other contents of the box without additional authority from the Court.
Retrieve the Contents of the Box
Once you have inventoried the box, you can determine whether you will need to obtain “Letters Testamentary” (if there is a Will); “Letters of Administration” (if there is no Will) or provide just as simple Small Estates Affidavit (for when assets are below a certain state determined threshold), to retrieve the contents. You may need to go back to Court to file certain additional paperwork to obtain the required certification to retrieve the contents.
We can help you open the box and obtain all necessary additional authority.
For more information, please contact probate and estate planning attorney Regina Kiperman:
Or visit her at her new location:
80 Maiden Lane
New York, NY 10038
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