Accessing a Safe Deposit Box After the Owner Passes Away

Among many of the things you may be wondering how to do after a loved one dies (please see our post on What to do After a Loved One Dies) may be figuring out how to access a safe deposit box after the owner passes away?  If the deceased owner 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.

Jointly Owned Safe Deposit Boxes.  Under Georgia law, safe deposit boxes jointly owned with another person are not automatically 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.  If you 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. An experienced Georgia probate attorney can tell you what, if any, rights of ownership the deceased may still have to the property in the box even if there was a joint tenant. However, it may likely require a judicial determination to decide this issue.

Single Ownership Safe Deposit Boxes.  What if the safe deposit box was just registered in the name of the deceased?   Then the law provides that even before a personal representative is appointed, any interested person, as defined in Georgia’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 and become qualified as an interested person.  One you are qualified as an interested person, you may petition a judge to open the box.

The probate judge may issue the order after a $25 fee plus surcharges has been paid. Once the order has been issued, the box may be opened by an officer or authorized employee of the bank in the presence of the petitioner (you). If a Will is found, the bank must deliver it directly to the local probate court. Insurance policies may be delivered directly to the named beneficiaries. The petitioner may receive only burial instructions and any deed to a burial plot. Other property must remain in the box until an Executor or Administrator is appointed.

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.

If you have a family member or loved one that has died in and around Northern Georgia leaving behind a safe deposit box and you need assistance, the experienced North Georgia probate lawyers at Durden & Mills, PC can assist you. Call us at (706) 543-4708.

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