When I began practicing law almost 30 years ago, it seemed that over half of my clients had safety deposit boxes at their local financial institutions. Those safety deposit boxes would come in all shapes and sizes depending on the needs of the client. However, currently it appears that the number of individuals with safety deposit boxes at financial institutions is smaller than it used to be. A number of individuals are now utilizing safes and lock boxes at their homes instead of renting those at their local financial institutions.
The use of a lock box, whether at a financial institution or at home, can be a very good idea. Usually individuals keep documents such as their wills, trusts, powers of attorney, original deeds, mortgage releases, real estate title abstracts, jewelry, coins, savings bonds, family heirlooms, and other valuable items in their safety deposit boxes. Of course, the use of a safety deposit box can be very beneficial in the case of a fire or flood or simply to make sure the document or item remains confidential.
When an individual has a safety deposit box, either at home or at a financial institution, it is critical that there is a plan to allow a loved one access to the safety deposit box. If the safety deposit box is at home, the individual should make sure that a loved one has the keys to enter the lock box and/or the combination, if needed. If the safety deposit box is at a financial institution, then the individual should make sure that their loved one and/or power of attorney knows where the keys are to the safety deposit box and may also even include that loved one’s name on the safety deposit box for the sole purpose of being able to enter the safety deposit box to obtain one of those legal documents previously mentioned when the need arises. Therefore, without a proper plan for your safety deposit box, your loved one may encounter additional problems at a time when they need to access your legal documents to either care for you or your assets.
The bad, with safety deposit boxes, can come about if an individual does not place another individual’s name on that safety deposit box at the financial institution and/or the loved one does not know where the keys are to that safety deposit box. If a loved one is not able to access your safety deposit box at a financial institution, Ohio law provides a mechanism whereby the loved one can file an application at the local County Probate Court where the individual resides and request that a commissioner be appointed to enter the safety deposit box. If the Court approves this request, then the Court will sign an Entry. Then the loved one will take the Entry to the financial institution in order to enter the safety deposit box. This process can be fairly simple but provides another hoop to jump through for the loved one, who may need the documents that they believe are in the safety deposit box quickly. Sometimes individuals add another person as a joint owner. If a joint owner is added, the hope would be that the joint owner would carry out the individual’s estate planning wishes because the items in the box would be considered the joint owners.
Another option would be that if an individual has a Revocable Trust, then they could name the Revocable Trust as the owner of the safety deposit box at a financial institution. Upon the individual’s death, assuming that they are the Trustee, then the successor Trustee would have access to the safety deposit box to obtain the various legal documents in it.
Please be aware of the good and the bad as it pertains to the use of safety deposit boxes and plan accordingly.
NOTE: This general summary of the law should not be used to solve individual problems since slight changes in the fact situation may require a material variance in the applicable legal advice.