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An unexpectedly large number of people open safe deposit boxes, leave them alone for several years, and forget the box ever existed. According to the Sacramento Bee, the California State Controller's Office had the contents of more than 138,000 safe deposit boxes under its control in 2017, including more than 75,000 US Savings Bonds worth more than $30 Million. Sometimes banks move, and sometimes box holders move, but the usual way in which boxes get forgotten is when someone dies.
While safe deposit boxes can, and usually do, serve a useful purpose of safeguarding valuables, you should know that they aren't 100% safe. Take, for example, a 2007 case reported on a Consumer Reports blog. A woman's aunt showed up at a Bank of America safe deposit vault the day after her aunt died only to discover that her aunt, who had in fact died, had supposedly been there earlier that day! Far from being a miracle, it was instead a con job.
According to the blog post, the woman's aunt had a friend who took control of her assets, and the day after she died she went to the bank, showed the bank the aunt's ID, forged her signature on the box register, and proceeded to walk away with an estimated $75,000 in cash plus jewelry. The bank branch manager refused to cooperate with a subsequent investigation, perhaps believing that cooperation would lead to liability. Such cases are probably rare, but they do illustrate an important point, namely that you can't always count on banks to help in estate matters involving safe deposit boxes.
Safe deposit boxes add a mix of mystery and distrust to disputed estates. Secrecy enfolds the basic questions that heirs and beneficiaries of disputed estates strive to answer - questions beginning with "who," "what," "where," "when," and "how." Unfortunately, and shocking to many people who find out the hard way, the contents of most safety deposit boxes are not insured. $10,000 on deposit at a bank usually carries FDIC insurance, but if you put $10,000 in a safety deposit box at the same bank, and someone in your family loots the box, your options will be limited. You would need to prove that the bank was negligent to have a case. Yes, it is possible to purchase separate insurance for articles in a safe deposit box, although it will probably only occur to buy such insurance after a worst case scenario has already happened.
If you've come across wrongdoing involving a safe deposit box or other trust assets, it may be time to talk to a skilled and experienced attorney who knows how to protect beneficiary rights. Hackard Law represents clients in significant estate, trust and elder financial abuse cases in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Alameda, Santa Clara, and San Diego. You can reach us today at 916-313-3030, and we'll be glad to see how we can help you.