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How to Access a Safe Deposit Box That is Part of An Estate

by Lynn Chen August 4, 2021

Lynn Chen is a staff attorney for the Planning & Estates Law Project.

When a loved one dies, they can leave behind several accounts and belongings that family or friends will need to sort through. These belongings often include a safe deposit box.  Accessing the safe deposit box can become an especially pressing concern if the deceased individual may have stored their Will in the box. Opening a safe deposit box is not as simple as bringing a death certificate to the bank. Fortunately, in New York, there is a relatively straightforward process to get permission from the Surrogate’s Court to open a safe deposit box and examine its contents.

In New York, an interested party can petition the Surrogate’s Court to request access to a deceased individual’s safe deposit box, particularly if you expect a Will, burial deed, or life insurance policy will be stored inside. An individual’s “interest” can include a variety of things, but typically refers to that person’s claim to the estate. This “Petition to Examine Safe Deposit Box” must be submitted to the Surrogate’s Court in the county where the deceased individual lived at the time of death. In addition to the Petition, the person filing the petition will also need to submit at minimum a Death Certificate and the applicable fees. If you file the Petition to Examine Safe Deposit Box and it is granted, you will receive an Order to Examine Safe Deposit Box that you can then bring to the bank.

A bank officer will accompany you to open the safe deposit box and will supervise as you create a list (or “inventory”) of the box’s contents. At this time, you are only able to examine any documents or items contained inside; you are not permitted to remove or collect anything. If a Will is found, a bank representative must deliver it to the Surrogate’s Court. If a deed to a burial plot is found, the deed must be delivered to the person designated in the court order. If an insurance policy in the deceased person’s name is found, it must be delivered to the named beneficiary.

To be able to collect items from the safe deposit box, an individual must first be appointed as fiduciary to the deceased person’s estate. Estates valued at $50,000 or less are considered a Small Estate, regardless of whether there is a Will. If a Will is found and the estate is above $50,000, then the Will must be submitted to the court and the named Executor appointed to the estate. If there is no Will for an estate over $50,000, then an eligible individual must be appointed as Administrator to the estate.

The New York State Court System also offers a free, online “do-it-yourself” program that walks you through form questions to request access to search a safe deposit box. When you complete the online program, it generates a completed form with your answers as well as instructions on what to do.

If a loved one has passed and you need assistance with their estate, the Planning and Estates Law Project (PELP) at the City Bar Justice Center provides free legal assistance to income-qualified individuals with estate matters. To inquire whether you qualify for such assistance, contact PELP by completing an online intake.

This informational resource does not constitute, or substitute for, legal advice.

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