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. Here's how:
Identify the location of the Safe Deposit Box.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 employment location. 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.
Obtain Permission from the Court to Open the BoxIn 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's died and request a petition to open the box. When are you arrive in Surrogate's Court, go to the "Miscellaneous" department 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 on this form.
Review the Contents of the BoxOnce you have obtained the Order allowing you to open the box, you should contact the financial institution or institutions holding the box 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, and the Inventory form that the Court will provide you along with the signed Order. If you do not have the keys, then the financial institution will have to break the lock to the box and will charge you a fee for having to break the box. 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 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.
Retrieve the Contents of the BoxOnce 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.