(Un)Safe Deposit Boxes


A safe deposit box (aka safety deposit box) is a great place to store valuable and/or important things, right? (Wondering, "what is a safe deposit box?" Click here.) Well, it depends (and yeah, it's totally fine to insert a groan here for this classic lawyer non-response).

The reason I'm writing about this topic is because it's not uncommon for people to store important papers in a safe deposit box - things like birth and marriage certificates, Social Security cards, passports, and yes - estate planning documents like Wills, Trusts, Health Care Powers of Attorney, and Durable General Powers of Attorney.

In terms of those estate planning documents - a safe deposit box is actually not your safest choice. Here's why:

  • You (or your loved ones) may need those documents at short notice and you'll have to wait until normal business hours to access the contents of the box; and

  • You can only get into the safe deposit box if you are (1) the titleholder of the box and (2) have both of the keys necessary to open it. Not the titleholder? A court order will be needed to open the box. Lose one or both keys? You'll have to pay a fee/fine and wait the box to be rekeyed.

Why does this matter? Well, imagine this scenario: Jack is a responsible adult and does all of his estate planning. Gold star for Jack. He gives his sister Jill a photocopy of each document (he's named her his Executor, as well as his Health Care and Durable Power of Attorney Agent) and tells her he's storing the originals in his safe deposit box at Acme Bank. He even give her one of his attorney's business cards, the bank manager's business card, tells her which safe deposit box is his, and tells her where he's keeping the safe deposit box keys at home. But then, Jack gets sick - very unexpectedly - and is hospitalized on a Friday. He calls Jill to let her know he may need her help and asks her to go to the bank to get his documents. So, Jill is at Acme Bank first thing Monday morning with the safe deposit keys. But, the bank manager can't let her access the box without a court order. Jack ends up dying from the illness and in the middle of everything else, Jill is having trouble getting Jack's Will admitted to the Estates Division of Courthouse because it is a photocopy, not the original. But she can't get into the safe deposit box to get the original without a court order. So she has to take additional steps to get the court order just to get to the original documents. Very frustrating. And this totally happens.

Moral of the story: if you have/want/need a safe deposit box - that's just fine. But don't put your original estate plan documents in it (photocopies are a-okay). So, where should you keep your original estate plan documents? My suggestion is a fireproof lockbox or small safe that you keep at home.

And, here's an additional "fun fact" about safe deposit boxes for North Carolina residents: when you die, the Executor of your Will is required by law to inventory the safe deposit box (after they have the court order allowing them to get into it, of course) and file that inventory with the court.

Ready to learn more about estate planning and what options may work best for you? My Estate Plan Initial Consultation appointments are perfect for this - one time, no (continuing) obligation, get the info you need and decide for yourself, schedule yours now!

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