A variety of factors determine who is entitled to inherit the contents of a deceased personís safe deposit box. These factors may include: a. the name or names on the safe deposit box lease, b. whether property in the safe deposit box has a registered title, c. the provisions of the box holderís will or living trust, and d. applicable state laws.Determining who has the right to inherit the contents of the decedentís safe deposit box is a complex issue. State laws vary significantly regarding how title to a safe deposit box may be held and who has the right to the contents upon the death of a box lessee, especially in the case of joint holders or co-owners.
If Safe Deposit Box Was Leased Jointly
If two or more lessees are named on the safe deposit box lease agreement, determining who has the right to inherit the contents of the box becomes more complicated. In some states, any property owned by a co-lessee that he places in the box will pass to his probate estate and not his surviving co-lessee. In other states, the surviving co-lessee owns the contents of the box regardless of the provisions of decedentís will. In some states, it depends on whether the surviving lessee is a spouse or non-spouse. Whether the individuals leased the box as joint tenants also plays a role in determining ownership of the contents.The language of the safe deposit box lease agreement and any other paperwork the co-lessees signed regarding the right to the contents, as well as applicable state laws, will determine how the contents of the box will be distributed after the death of one of the lessees. In addition, it is important to distinguish between a joint holder of a safe deposit box and someone who is merely listed as authorized to access the box. If you are unsure how the contents of the decedentís safe deposit box should be distributed, consult a probate lawyer.
If Safe Deposit Box Contains Decedentís Will
If you open a deceased personís safe deposit box and find the decedentís original will, state law may require you to file the will with the probate court of the county in which decedent was domiciled. If you discover the decedentís original will in the safe deposit box, contact a probate lawyer immediately to ensure you comply with the law.
If you are responsible for winding up the affairs of a deceased person, use a guide for executors from the list on our Books About Probate page.Note: Laws regarding estates, probate, and safe deposit boxes vary from state to state. There are exceptions to the general overview provided on this page. Consult a probate lawyer for specific information about how to access, inventory or distribute the contents of a deceased personís safe deposit box.
If Safe Deposit Box Leased Solely in Decedent's Name
If the safe deposit box was titled solely in the deceased personís name and no other individuals were named on the box as co-holders, all property in the box that does not have a registered title will typically be part of the decedentís probate estate and pass according to decedentís will or, in the absence of a will, according to state intestate succession laws. Any property in the box which has a registered title will usually pass according to how the property is titled. See
title to property.
Title to Property in Safe Deposit Box
Certain types of property stored in a safe deposit box may have a registered title, such as stocks and other registered securities. Other types of property stored in a safe deposit box are unregistered, such as cash, jewelry, bearer bonds, gold or silver bars, coins, and artwork.
Safe Deposit Box Leased by Living Trust
If the safe deposit box is titled in the name of decedentís living trust and all contents of the box were properly transferred to the living trust prior to his or her death, the contents of the box pass to named beneficiaries of the trust according to its terms. However, issues may arise if certain property in the safe deposit box was not titled in the name of the living trust or was not properly transferred to it. If trust property is commingled with non-trust property in the box, such non-trust property will usually pass to the decedentís probate estate.
Safe Deposit Boxes and Your Estate Plan
For information about what to store in your safe deposit box, how to title your safe deposit box in the name of your living trust, and answers to related estate planning questions, see our Safe Deposit Box page.