Q. My late Uncle set up a safety deposit box at a local bank and named me as both executor under his Will and trustee under his Trust. In order to follow his wishes, I need access to his original estate planning documents, which I understand are held in his safety deposit box. How can I do that?
A. Assuming that the safety deposit box was held in your Uncle’s name, alone, here is what you would need: (a) a key to the safety deposit box, (b) proof of his death (either a certified copy of his death certificate or a written statement of death from the coroner, his treating physician or hospital where he died), ( c) proof of your own identity, such as by a California drivers license, and (d) a signed Affidavit attesting to your right to access the safety box on your Uncle’s behalf, which may need to be notarized; the bank should have a form.
Access to the box will be under the supervision of a bank representative, who will make and retain a copy of the Will and/or Trust found in the box, while allowing you to remove the originals so that you can begin administering your Uncle’s estate. The bank will also let you remove any written instructions for the disposition of his remains, so that you can handle his final wishes in a timely manner.
If you do not have a key, access will likely be more difficult. At a minimum, you will need to persuade the bank to have a locksmith drill the lock to open the box, most likely at your own expense, in addition to providing the other items mentioned above. The bank may also require that you first initiate a court probate proceeding to secure Letters of Administration or Letters Testamentary before permitting access.
If there were another co-owner on his safety box, designated as a joint tenant, then the joint tenant would have access so long as he or she had a key. If not, then again the box would require drilling and the bank would likely need the other items listed above.
Sometimes a person will designate his or her Trust, itself, as the owner of the box. If this is the case, then the Successor Trustee under your Uncle’s Trust could access the box, again assuming that he has a key and can provide the other requirements noted above.
In order to entirely avoid the bank access issue after death, I generally advise clients to retain their original Wills and Trusts in readily accessible places in their own home or other safe place, and to so advise the person(s) whom they have named as Executor or Successor Trustee. This can facilitate swift access following death. Even if one has a cooperating bank, remember that banks are not open after hours or on major holidays, and have limited hours on weekends. Swift access can be essential, especially if one needs immediate access to burial instructions following death. Delays and obstacles in accessing these important items after death can be upsetting to next of kin following the death of their loved one, so give them a little assist and keep them in a safe place that is both known to, and accessible by, your designated successor(s).