Things to know about opening safe-deposit boxes
To access your loved one’s safe-deposit box before probate, you will need their death certificate, your ID, and potentially a court order, depending on state law and the bank’s rules.
Once you gain access, you will only be able to inventory and photograph items, not remove them.
If the will is in the box, the bank will send it directly to the probate court.
Having a key may help you get access and will save you a drilling fee.
Many people rent safe-deposit boxes as a secure place to house their valuables—jewels, bond certificates, insurance policies, and more. After a loved one passes away, you may need to see inside any safe-deposit box they might have had in order to know what to do with its contents.
As you might expect, there are rules that dictate how and when you can take a look in your loved one’s box. In general, once a bank is notified of a customer’s death it generally will not grant access to the box absent an order from the court. The fine print of such rules, however, can vary from bank to bank and state to state. There can also be different scenarios depending on who is requesting access to the box, and whether this all takes place before a will goes into probate or during that process.
Figuring out the particulars of your individual situation will take a bit of patience, and there may be some effort or gathering of necessary paperwork before you can gain access. This can be a lot of bureaucracy to deal with, especially if you are still processing your grief. Remember, if ever there was a time to ask friends and family to support you emotionally and with the logistical challenges that await, it is now.
Accessing the box before probate
Before you try to get into your loved one’s safe-deposit box, make sure you have your photo identification and an official copy of your loved one’s death certificate in hand.
Depending on the bank and on state law, you may also need an order giving you permission to look inside the box from a court in the county where your loved one lived.
Such court orders are typically granted to specific interested parties—relatives, spouses, or conservators, for instance—for the purpose of taking inventory only. You may be able to take photographs or make photocopies of documents, but you will have no right to remove anything from the box at this point.
To obtain the court order, you will likely have to file a petition and pay minor administrative fees. A judge will review your paperwork before granting your request. Once granted, in some cases, you will then have to provide advance written notice to the bank that you will conduct an inventory of the box within a defined time period. At that time, you will be allowed to look inside the box in the presence of a bank representative.
When the will is in the box
If your loved one’s will is found inside the safe-deposit box when you take inventory, the bank will make a copy of it that will stay in the box, and then send the original to the probate court. It may do the same with documents related to burial and insurance, sending them on to the relevant parties. Then it will relock the box until an estate executor is named and probate begins.
Court orders are granted for the purpose of taking inventory only – you will have no right to remove anything from the box.
Safe-deposit box keys
When making your initial search through any documents and files your loved one kept at home, it is a good idea to keep an eye out for any safe-deposit box keys. In some states, you can access a loved one’s box if you have their death certificate, valid identification attesting to the fact that you are a relative, and the key. You will then be able to have a look inside in the presence of a bank representative. This is not a consistent rule, however, so be sure to check with the bank to know exactly what they require and if the documents plus the key will suffice.
Even if the key isn’t enough without a court order, try your best to find it. If you have all the necessary paperwork, including a court order, but no key, the bank will arrange to drill open the lock—but you or the estate will have to pay a fee for the drilling and replacement.
Accessing the box during probate
Once the estate has entered probate, the designated executor will be issued letters testamentary that attest to the legitimacy of their role. With those letters in hand, the executor can go to the bank to access and remove all contents of the safe-deposit box in order to distribute them in accordance with the terms of the will.
If there is no will, the process is the same: The administrator will be able to access the contents by presenting their letters of administration. They can then take out any assets and deal with them according to state law.
Keep in mind that the process of accessing a loved one’s safe-deposit box can differ from state to state. Make sure you consult with a lawyer and with bank representatives to best understand and abide by the ins and outs of local regulations. And don’t be concerned if you aren’t given access right away; this process can sometimes take weeks or even months. Do the things you can now to most effectively take care of your family and honor the intentions of your loved one, and rest assured that if you go through the steps properly, you’ll get to where you need to be in time.
You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.
Finding all of your loved one’s assets
Locating all of your loved one’s assets can be a big task, but it is crucial to fully settling the estate. If you know where to look and who to ask, you'll discover what valuables your loved one owned and their worth without much trouble.6 min read
Gaining access to your loved one’s digital accounts
Gaining access to online accounts can be very simple, if you have access to their computer or their phone. There are several ways to try to get into these, including finding passwords and enlisting the services of a computer technician.6 min read
What can be paid out of an estate account?
After a loved one passes away, their family may incur many expenses before probate starts. Some of these can be reimbursed by the estate, but it is important to know which. The costs paid while administering the estate will also be paid out of its assets.7 min read