Needing access to a deceased family member’s safe deposit box is a common issue many families face as they prepare to pass a last will and testament through probate in New York Surrogate’s Court. While many assume they can simply bring their loved one’s death certificate and box key to the bank and explain the situation to the bank manager, the truth is that most bank officials will turn down these requests without proper paperwork from the Surrogate Court.
When faced with the impasse, many individuals look at the situation as a catch 22. On the one hand, access to the safe deposit box is needed to probate the will and on the other hand, the safe deposit box cannot be accessed until the estate is probated. Fortunately, New York’s estates and trust laws are prepared for such scenarios and offer a somewhat streamlined process for gaining access to a safe deposit box where a will and other important documents may be stored.
New York Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act, Section 2003 gives interested parties, those with claims to an estate, the right to request access to the deceased’s safe deposit box for the purpose of uncovering the last will and testament. To gain an “Order to Open Safe Deposit Box,” the interested party will need to file the necessary paperwork with a copy of the death certificate and applicable fee.
The order will allow the safe deposit box to be opened, inventoried, and then sealed again until the estate’s executor gains the proper order to take ownership of the box’s contents. With a secured order, the interested party can make an appointment with the bank manager to open and inventory the box’s contents and hopefully find the deceased’s last will and testament. If the interested party does not have the key to the safe deposit box, the process will likely cost more time and money to secure one.
If the will is inside the safe deposit box, the bank will transfer the document to the appropriate Surrogate’s Court for probate. The only other contents of the box that may be removed generally are any life insurance policies, which will go to the named beneficiary, and the deed to a burial plot which the Surrogate Court will direct. All other contents will be inventoried and sealed inside the box until which time the executor of the estate secures the right from the Surrogate’s Court to do so.