This is a question that comes up regularly. Not surprisingly, there is a legal process for this. If the court has already appointed you as administrator of the estate, the Letters of Administration issued by the court give you all the authority you need to open the deceased person’s safe deposit box.
Before you even file a Petition for Administration, however, you need to determine if there is a will. If there is, then you won’t be filing a Petition for Administration. Instead, the Executor named in the will must file a Petition for Probate.
So how do you go about accessing a safe deposit box to even find out if it contains a will? The answer is contained in Section 2003 of the Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act. This law provides the procedure. You must file a Petition to Examine Safe Deposit Box and pay a small filing fee ($20). In this petition you identify who you are, where you live and what your relation to the deceased person was. You list who else has a possible interest in the estate. You identify the location of the safe deposit box and you name the papers you believe might be inside, such as a will, insurance policies or the deed to a burial plot.
If the court accepts your petition, you get an order allowing you to inspect the contents of the safe deposit box, in the presence of a bank officer. If you find a will inside, the bank must mail it to the court. Insurance policies will be sent to the named beneficiaries. The court gets informed of the burial plot, and issues an order about how to handle that. Anything else in the box gets inventoried. Nothing else is removed until the court appoints an Executor (if there is a will) or an Administrator (if there isn’t).
It is possible to do all this without an attorney, but getting legal advice is always a good idea in these circumstances. Court personnel generally are helpful, but they won’t give you legal advice.
For more information about this topic or anything else concerning wills and estates, ask us. We’re here to help.