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I thought that I would add a quick note about safe deposit boxes.  When someone dies with a safe deposit box in their name individually, about the only way to open the box and remove its contents is through a court order. Hopefully, your loved one put someone else on as a signor on the box so that it can be accessed. But if that isn’t the case, you need to notify the estate attorney and let him know to get the court order to open the box and remove the contents.

After the court order is obtained, you will have to open the box with the decedent’s key. If the key can’t be located, then arrangements will have to be made, and the court order should mandate that the box be drilled open.

Moreover, it will be important to inventory the box with a disinterested person. Many banks require a bank officer to be present. It’s therefore probably a good idea to schedule the date and time to open the box and remove its contents, including having a bank officer assist in creating an inventory of the contents (most banks have forms for this). The inventory should then be filed with the court.

Not only is creating a formal inventory of the safe deposit box good legal practice, it serves to protect the person opening the box from accusations of fraud or theft.

Consider the time that I once assisted in opening a bank deposit box of one of my deceased clients. I took the key and the court order to the bank with the trustee of my client’s trust—and we had a bank officer sit in on the entire process. When I arrived at the bank, I discovered that the bank deposit box was rather large. I put my key into the box, as did the bank officer (most boxes require two keys to open—one from the box holder and the other by the bank).

The box was extremely heavy. The sound of coins jingling inside was evident. We struggled to lift the box onto the table. Inside was several thousand dollars’ worth of Krugerrand gold coins.

The trustee wondered if the Krugerrands needed to be reported on the federal estate tax return.

“Undoubtedly yes, they do need to be reported,” I answered. “The Federal Estate Tax Return Form 706 requires with a check box whether the decedent had a safe deposit box.  If the decedent did rent such a box, then the IRS expects a full inventory. Not reporting valuable items that you know exist would likely constitute fraud and may include both civil and criminal penalties.”

Moreover, I was glad that the bank officer was present. We carefully catalogued the inventory of the box, and the bank officer signed off on it. I quickly then secured safe storage for the contents, which were eventually sold and made a part of the trust. Whenever I open a safe deposit box, I don’t want anyone to ever accuse me of fraud or theft.

Sometimes, family members expect certain valuables to be in the box when the box only includes legal documents like a copy of the will.  “Mom told me that her diamond jewelry was in that box!” is something that I’ve heard on more than one occasion, when in fact the person opening the box told me that no such valuables were inside.

So be careful with safe deposit boxes and their contents. Take adequate precautions to ensure that you have independent parties present to catalogue and inventory the box at all times.

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