I often receive phone calls from clients who had recently lost a loved one and, among other things, are confused about how to access the decedent’s safe deposit box. A common concern is that the loved one kept their last will in the box, which needs to be probated. In fact, before the Surrogate’s Court allows anyone to file an Administration Petition alleging that the decedent did not leave a last will, they generally require a search of all safe deposit boxes. In addition to a last will, safe deposit boxes often contain vital information which the family needs immediately after the decedent’s death such as a deed to a burial plot or instructions with regards to dealing with their remains. That is why I advise my clients not leave important documents, which need to be accessed soon after death, in their safe deposit boxes. I have seen banks routinely deny access to surviving joint tenants of safe deposit boxes, including spouses and deputies, without a court order. Not surprisingly, the question of how one can quickly access a safe deposit box after the death of a loved one is an important and frequent one in my probate and estates practice.
In New York, the Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act, Section 2003, allows an interested party, usually a family member, to petition the court to examine the contents of the box. The court generally requires a death certificate and a fee of $20 for the petition and $6 per box. Upon reviewing the petition and receiving the fee, the court issues an “Order to Open Safe Deposit Box” which will allow the box to be opened, inventoried, and then sealed again. After making an appointment with a bank officer at the branch which houses the box, the client takes the Order to the branch along with a key to the box. If the family member does not have a key to the box, more time and money are required before the box can be accessed. Once the keys are located and the appointment with the bank officer is scheduled, the box is opened in the presence of the bank officer, and the contents are inventoried. If there is a will, the bank delivers it to the Surrogate’s Court. If there is a life insurance policy, it is given to the beneficiary. If there is a deed to a burial plot, the Surrogate’s Court will direct where it goes. Everything else is inventoried and put back in the box and kept at the bank pending further court order. Any other contents in the box stay put until an administrator or executor are authorized to remove them. The purpose of Section 2003 is to allow an interested party quick access to important documents, not to collect and distribute the assets.
To be allowed the right to collect the contents of the box, a petition for letters testamentary (if there is a will) or letters of administration (if there is no will), would need to be brought before the Surrogate’s Court. The court will then issue letters, appointing an executor or administrator, who could then collect the contents of the box and distribute them as per the will or the rules of intestacy (dying without a will).
If your loved one left behind a safe deposit box which needs to be accessed, contact an estate attorney in Queens or Brooklyn today for a free phone consultation.
Law Offices Of Roman Aminov 147-17 Union Turnpike, Flushing, NY 11367 (347) 766-2685
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