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Accessing a Safe Deposit Box After the Owner Passes Away

Posted by Andrew Byers | Mar 30, 2011 | 0 Comments

How do you access a safe deposit box after the owner passes away?  If the deceased owner (the “decedent”) had a safe deposit box, it may be a good idea to gain access to the box as soon as possible.  The Last Will and Testament or Trust and other documents needed to settle the estate can often be found in a safe deposit box.

Under Michigan law, safe deposit boxes jointly owned with another person are not sealed at death. The surviving joint tenant may gain immediate access. While this may be convenient, be careful in who you designate as a joint tenant on a safe deposit box because the joint tenant has the right to enter the box and remove any items in it, at any time.  Designate the wrong person and the jewelry, gold coins, or cash that “everyone in the family knows was in the box” may go missing for good. 

If you have a probate estate, the probate court may appoint a personal representative for your estate.  If the joint tenant is someone other than the personal representative, then both the joint tenant and the personal representative have full access to the box. If the box is jointly leased with someone other than the personal representative, however, the personal representative must open the box in the presence of the safe deposit company's authorized employee.  Michigan law then requires that a list of items removed by the personal representative must be made and served on the other joint owner within seven days.  

What if the safe deposit box was just registered in the decedent's name?   Then the law provides that even before a personal representative is appointed, any interested person, as defined in Michigan's probate laws, may petition the probate court to open a safe deposit box to look for a will or burial plot deed.  However, to utilize this law you need to know the name of the financial institution and location of the branch where the safe deposit box is located and the box number.

The probate judge may issue the order immediately after a $10 fee has been paid. Once the order has been issued, the box may be opened in the presence of an officer or authorized employee of the bank. All those in attendance must sign a certificate stating whether a will or burial deed was found in the box and that no other items were removed. Items contained in the safe deposit box other than the will or burial plot deed may not be removed from the box.

The certificate and any will or burial plot deed found in the box are to be delivered to the probate register. The register issues a receipt for these materials to the bank where the box was found.

What if you are not sure if a deceased person had a safe deposit box?  In order to find out, an estate will have to be opened in probate court and a personal representative appointed.  A personal representative, once appointed, has authority to inquire of a bank if there was a safe deposit box and the bank is authorized to disclose that information to a personal representative.  The personal representative, once appointed, has full access to the box.

About the Author

Andrew Byers

Andrew Byers' elder law practice focuses on the legal needs of older clients and their families, and works with a variety of legal tools and techniques to meet the goals and objectives of the older client. Under this holistic approach, I handle estate and longevity planning issues and counsel cli...

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