4 Bank Safe Deposit Box Questions

Wednesday, Mar 31 2010 04:38 PM

  • Safe-deposit box probably not necessary for all, but benefits some.
  • Property deeds, insurance policies, other documents belong in box.
  • It's probably a mistake to put a will or cash in a safe-deposit box.

Renting a bank safe-deposit box can help secure important personal documents, collectibles and family heirlooms. But it's important to make wise decisions about what goes in the box and to stipulate who has access to it.

Not everyone needs a safe-deposit box, says Joe Stanganelli, a lawyer with Beacon Hill Law in Boston who handles trusts and estates.

"It depends what you own," Stanganelli says. "For the everyday person who is not wealthy or doesn't have any family heirlooms, they're probably not going to need a safe-deposit box."

However, others may benefit from a safe-deposit box. If you've rented a box or are considering it, experts recommend weighing the following questions:

What should I put in my bank safe-deposit box?

Items experts recommend storing in a safety-deposit box include birth or marriage certificates, insurance policies, property deeds, rare coins, jewelry, irreplaceable family photos, stock or bond certificates, and foreign currency.

Ryan Mack, president of Optimum Capital Management in New York, says the rule of thumb when deciding what to put into a safe-deposit box is if the following statement applies to the item: "If these documents were lost, I'm in big trouble now."

Some people may be reluctant to put items into their boxes because of privacy concerns. But such fears are unfounded, as liability concerns keep banks from prying into safe-deposit contents.

"We don't want to know what's in there," says Cyril "Sid" Spiro, CEO of Regent Bank in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "Whatever is in those boxes, we have no idea."

What should I leave out of my bank safe-deposit box?

You probably shouldn't put your will in a bank safe-deposit box, says Jerry Stevenson, the managing attorney of the Stevenson Law Group in San Diego.

But Stevenson says many people do keep their will in the box. In such cases, a court order usually is needed to retrieve it once the safe-deposit box holder dies.

"They think it's the best place because it's a very safe place, but it's the worst place," says Stevenson, whose firm handles tax and estate issues.

It isn't a good idea in most cases to store cash in a safe-deposit box, Stanganelli says. Cash kept in a safe-deposit box is not insured by the federal government under Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., or FDIC rules.

Stanganelli also recommends keeping items out of a safe-deposit box if you suspect you may need to retrieve them in an emergency, or if your survivors are likely to need them immediately after you die. (This latter criterion isn't an issue if you rent a box jointly with a surviving spouse or someone else, he says.)

Who should get access to my bank safe-deposit box?

Who can access the box? It depends on the names on the signature card for the box rental at the bank.

If you rent the box only in your name, you, a power-of-attorney or agent you designate are the only ones who can get into the locked box, Stevenson says.

A safe-deposit box rented jointly with a spouse, child or friend means those people also have access.

Experts say it's wise to have a designated power of attorney to handle your financial affairs -- including access to your box -- in case you are unable to because you are disabled or traveling, among other reasons.

"If you have a power of attorney, getting into your safe-deposit box won't be a problem," Stanganelli says.

Regent Bank keeps a master key for the boxes in its South Florida branches and the customer has a key. However, the bank doesn't open the boxes without the customer present, Spiro says.

Who can access my bank safe-deposit box when I die?

Anyone who is a co-renter of the box has immediate access to it upon your death.

But what if you are the sole renter of the box? People often are confused about who can gain entry to the box. Many wrongly believe a power of attorney has access to the box after you die.

However, a power of attorney loses authority to act on your behalf upon your death, Stevenson says.

An executor or executrix that you designated to handle your estate after you die would get access to your safe-deposit box, but how quickly depends on the state you live in and the bank, Stanganelli says.

It's possible to speed that process in certain states by having a "temporary executor clause" in a will, he says. In such instances, the executor can obtain a court order quickly after your death to access the box while your estate is going through probate.

If you legally appoint a trustee to oversee assets placed in trust before you die, that individual also would have access to the safe-deposit box upon your death.

Veteran business writer Paul Bomberger freelances from Wellington, Fla.

Posted: March 31, 2010



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