Accessing a Safe Deposit Box When a Loved One Passes

When a loved one passes, the time after death can be confusing and sometimes traumatic.

Important documents such as the Will and Trust of the decedent may need to be gathered quickly. The location of this paperwork is often found in a safe deposit box.

If your name is on the box, no problem, right? But how can your loved one, who may very well be the agent named in these important documents, access the safe deposit box if their name is not on it and they may or may not have located your key?

A bank representative may likely tell your loved one that a probate estate must be opened before access to the safe deposit box is given. Obtaining letters testamentary is only required, however, if the individual does not have a key.

Under California Probate Code § 331, access to a decedent’s safe deposit box is allowed when:

1. An individual with a key, provides a certified copy of the death certificate and proof of identity of the person seeking access.

  • The person seeking access may remove original wills and trust instruments after a photocopy is made. The photocopies must be returned to the safe deposit box.
  • The person seeking access may also inventory what is in the safe deposit box and photograph the items in it as well.
  • The contents may be removed by the personal representative of an estate or other legally authorized person.
  • In general, opening the safe deposit box will be monitored by at least two bank employees, and the bank will keep a record of the identity of the person accessing the box.

2. An individual without a key must, in general, obtain letters testamentary from the court to gain access to the box.

If an original Will is found in a safe deposit box, the person accessing the box is required to deliver it to the Clerk of the Superior Court or deliver copy to person named in will as executor within thirty (30) days of its discovery.

If you have any additional questions on this topic or any other estate planning issues, please give us a call at (530) 798-4321.