How to Access a Safe Deposit Box Upon Death

November 1, 2018

Access to a safe deposit box upon death can be accomplished in a number of ways. Commonly, documents such as a will, insurance policies, and burial plan documents may be contained in the contents of a safe deposit box. Access to the safe deposit box documents may be accomplished in a number of ways; unfortunately, some of the methods may take time and delay other post death activities and decisions. This article explores various methods to obtain access to a safe deposit box

The easiest and quickest way to allow someone access to a safe deposit box is to provide access to that individual through the rental contract with the safe deposit box holder. This can be accomplished by having the individual provide a signature card and either providing them with a duplicate key or access to the location where the key is kept. The downside to providing this type of access to an individual is that the access is not limited to after death. Therefore, if the individual is provided with a key and permitted access to the safe deposit box they can access the box prior to time of death and prior to when the safe deposit box renter may intend for them to have access to the box. Some safe deposit box holders allow designation of a successor upon death.

In Minnesota for estates with total assets of less than $75,000.00 an affidavit of collection can be used to access the safe deposit box. The affidavit of collection of personal property can be used if the person is a blood relative to the person who died (known as the decedent), or has a legal interest in the decedent’s property. To use the affidavit of collection the total value of all property where ever located minus any liens and encumbrances on the property most not be greater than $75,000.00. The affidavit can be used whether or not the person who died had a Will. The safe deposit box must be listed only in the name of the person who died. The draw back to this method is the limitation on the value of the total estate and the fact that the affidavit cannot be used until thirty days have passed from the date of death. The affidavit is a simple one page form and most be presented to the holder of the safe deposit box along with a certified copy of the death certificate of the decedent.

A third method of accessing a safe deposit box is to present the holder of the safe deposit box with an affidavit in support of search. This affidavit can be used solely to access the safe deposit box and while copies of certain documents can be obtained the method does not allow the user to obtain the originals of any materials within the box. The affidavit can be used to search contents of the box for such things as a will, burial plan, funeral insurance, a deed to a burial lot, or documents containing burial instructions. The affidavit may be used by a person named a personal representative in a will, a person who immediately prior to the death had the right of access to the box, a surviving spouse, a beneficiary under the will, an heir of the person who died if there is no will, or a person who is designated by the person who died in a writing provided to the safe deposit box holder prior to death.

If the affidavit in support of search is used, the holder of the safe deposit box will open it in the presence of the person presenting the affidavit. If a will is present, it may be copied and the original will be delivered to the court administrator of the county where the decedent lived. Copies of cemetery deeds or other burial documents can be photocopied as well. Other documents or items in the safe deposit box will be inventoried and the inventory provided to the county where decedent resided at the time of death. The affidavit in support of search requires evidence of the death which typically consists of a death certificate or statement in the lieu of death which can be provided by the funeral home while waiting for the death certificate to be issued if access is needed prior to the issue of the death certificate.

An additional method for access to a safe deposit box is for the executor or personal representative of an estate to present letters testamentary or letters of general administration issued by the court to the holder of the safe deposit box. This method requires petitioning the court to have someone appointed as the personal representative or executor of the decedent. If a petition is filed informally, it will typically take six weeks to two months to be appointed. A formal petition can be filed in order to attempt to expedite the appointment, however, this also may take a number of weeks as notice and publication is required.

Accessing documents in a safe deposit box can take some time after the death of an individual if appropriate pre-death planning is not undertaken. As with all estate planning activities, appropriate communication to those appointed to take care of your affairs after your death should be undertaken so that survivors know where to look for important documents and materials and how to access that information.

This information is general in nature and should not be construed as tax or legal advice.