How to Access a Decedent’s Safe Deposit Box in California

From the desk of San Diego Probate Lawyer, Kristina R. Hess:

Research and contribution by Victoria Koenitzer

How To Access a Decedent’s Safe Deposit Box in California

If your loved one has recently passed away, the last thing you want to deal with is the hassle of figuring out how to access their safe deposit box.  Accessing safe deposit boxes soon after the death of a loved one is crucial because they may contain important documents, such as wills and trusts.  The safe deposit box may also contain instructions for disposition of remains, which are needed immediately so that the decedent’s wishes may be carried out.  This post intends to give you the knowledge of what to expect, how to prepare, and how to navigate the process efficiently.

If the Decedent Held the Safe Deposit Box in Their Sole Name:

If the decedent held a safe deposit box in their sole name and the letters have not been distributed you may be able to access its contents.  You will need:

  • The key to the safe deposit box,
    • If you do not have the key and you are not the public administrator, you must obtain letters from the court to access the box.
    • If you do not have the key and you are the public administrator, you can access the safe deposit box free of charge, without a written certification, without a death certificate, without a court order, and without letters issued. You can inspect the safe deposit box and remove any will or instructions for disposition of the decedent’s remains.  However, the decedent’s estate will bear cost for drilling or otherwise opening the box.
  • Either (a) the decedent’s death certificate or (b) a written statement of death from the coroner, treating physician, or hospital/institution where the decedent died, and
  • Reasonable proof of your own identity (your driver’s license, for example).

Once you have provided these items, the financial institution will grant you access to the safe deposit box.  The bank will then allow you to make inventory of its contents under the supervision of an officer or employee.  You may remove any wills, trusts, and instructions for the disposition of the decedent’s remains from the safe deposit box, but not any other items.

If you do remove any wills or trusts instruments from the box, the bank will make photocopies of the documents and keep the photocopy in the safe deposit box until the personal representative of the estate removes the contents of the box.  Be aware that the bank may charge you for photocopying the documents.

If you do find any wills in the safe deposit box, you are required to:

  • Give the will(s) to the clerk of the superior court, and
  • Mail or delivery a copy of the will to the executor and beneficiaries named in the will.

If You Jointly Leased the Safe Deposit Box with Decedent:

To gain access to a joint safe deposit box when one person is deceased, the personal representative will need to present the financial institution with a death certificate and executor’s testament.  Additionally, you should be prepared to provide a copy of the safe deposit box’s rental agreement, as well as photo identification.

To have title to the contents of the safe deposit box, there must be express agreement that the property in the box is joint property.  Simply because you and decedent deposited items into a joint leased safe deposit box does not establish that you both hold joint title in the property.

If you have any further questions regarding access to safe deposit boxes, please contact our office!