Anxiety fueled by grief is a part of the inventory process of a decedent's property. A family member is tasked by practicality, family consensus, or an estate document to gather a decedent's assets. Some assets are obvious - a house, documented bank accounts and securities and onsite personal property. Other assets are more opaque - physically separated in a financial institution safe deposit box or a house or office safe.
Safe deposit boxes add a mix of mystery and distrust to disputed estates. Mystery enfolds the basic questions that heirs and beneficiaries of disputed estates strive to answer - questions beginning with "who," "what," "where," "when," and "how."
Safe deposit boxes have long been regulated in California. Even regulated, their existence still presents opportunities for mischief from wrongdoers. California Probate Code §331 limits access to a decedent's safe deposit box. The limitations apply only to a box held by a decedent alone or a decedent and others who are also deceased. The code does not affect the rights of a living co-holder.
If the box is in the decedent's name alone, a person who has a key to the box may gain access prior to the appointment of an estate personal representative for the limited purpose of establishing an inventory, making a photocopy of all wills and trusts in the box, and securing instructions for the disposition of the decedent's remains. If a will is found, it must be mailed or delivered to the clerk of the Superior Court. A copy of the will is required to be provided to the named executor or beneficiaries.
If there is no key to the decedent's safe deposit box, the person seeking access must obtain letters testamentary from the Superior Court to gain access to the box.
If we apply the classic journalists' questions - the 5Ws and an H - to the decedent's safe deposit box we ask: Who had access to the box before the decedent's death? Who had access to it after the death? What was in the box before the death? After the death? Where was the box located? Were other accounts with the financial institution at the same location? When was the box leased from the financial institution? When was the box accessed? Why did the decedent lease the box? Why did the decedent tell or not tell others about the box? How did anyone other than the decedent gain access to the box?
Safe deposit boxes become part of estate and trust litigation in a variety of ways. In cases where the decedent was the sole holder of the box, access visits shortly before a decedent's death may raise issues of undue influence - particularly where dramatic changes in estate plans occur around the same time as the visits.
Safe deposit boxes hold mysteries for what they contain and don't contain. Estate and trust litigation is often a quest for answers to these mysteries. If you are facing such litigation in California's major urban areas, whether in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Alameda, Santa Clara, or San Diego, Hackard Law is happy to speak with you - call us at 916 313-3030. We look forward to hearing your story.