ACCESS TO SAFE
DEPOSIT BOXES AFTER DEATH-THE LAW
The time soon after
the death of a family member or friend is usually confusing and
traumatic with family and friends often required to perform quickly such
mundane but vital acts as planning the funeral, paying bills, caring for
pets of the Decedent and the myriad details of daily life. Sooner or
later the family realizes that they must gain access to such important
documents as the Will and Trust that may have been written by the
Decedent and often that document is located in a Safe Deposit Box. How
does one gain access to such a box after the person who owned it has
That procedure has
been codified in California and is the subject of this article. The
reader should first review our article on
of Estates before reading further.
Probate Code § 331 access to decedent's safe deposit box is allowed
only as detailed below:
1. This above section applies only to a safe deposit box in a financial
institution held by the decedent in the decedent's sole name, or held by
the decedent and others where all are deceased. Nothing in this section
affects the rights of a surviving co holder. Thus, if one’s name is on
the box, one can achieve access in the same manner as if the Decedent
had not died.
Assuming the box is
in the name of the Decedent, however,
2. A person who has a key to the safe deposit box may, before
letters testamentary have been issued, obtain access to the safe deposit
box only for the purposes specified in Probate Code Section 334
by providing the financial institution with both of the following:
(1) Proof of the decedent's death. Proof shall be provided
by a certified copy of the decedent's death certificate or by a written
statement of death from the coroner, treating physician, or hospital or
institution where the decedent died.
(2) Reasonable proof of the identity of the person seeking
access. Reasonable proof of identity is provided for the purpose of this
paragraph if the requirements of Section 13104 are satisfied.
3. The financial institution has no duty to inquire into the truth of
any statement, declaration, certificate, affidavit, or document offered
as proof of the decedent's death or proof of identity of the person
4. When the person seeking access has satisfied the requirements above,
the financial institution shall do all of the following:
(1) Keep a record of the identity of the person.
(2) Permit the person to open the safe deposit box under the supervision
of an officer or employee of the financial institution, and to make an
inventory of its contents.
(3) Make a photocopy of all wills and trust instruments
removed from the safe deposit box, and keep the photocopy in the safe
deposit box until the contents of the box are removed by the personal
representative of the estate or other legally authorized person. The
financial institution may charge the person given access a reasonable
fee for photocopying.
(4) Permit the person given access to remove instructions
for the disposition of the decedent's remains, and, after a photocopy is
made, to remove the wills and trust instruments.
5. The person given access shall deliver all wills found in
the safe deposit box to the clerk of the superior court and mail or
deliver a copy to the person named in the will as executor or
beneficiary as provided in Section 8200.
6. Except as provided in subdivision (d), the person given access
shall not remove any of the contents of the decedent's safe deposit box.
7. Note that the above only applies to a person who has a key to the
safe deposit box. If the person seeking access does not have a key
to the safe deposit box and is not the public administrator, the person
must obtain letters testamentary from the court to gain access to the
See our article on
Probate of Estates and
Wills and Trusts as to the
procedure for obtaining Letters Testamentary.