Many people lease and use safety deposit boxes. In a sense, they are thought of as an inexpensive form of insurance (though they are actually not). Heirlooms, valuables and other items are very commonly placed and held in safety deposit boxes (“SDB”), not only to be secure but sometimes to avoid their loss, or theft. It is also common to place important documents in SDBs, including birth and marriage certificates, Wills, Powers of Attorney and health care related documents.
In my experience, most clients have SDBs. I find that I frequently discuss issues related to boxes, as part of an Estate plan, including what to hold in the box as well as the access to the box. There are some important aspects to be aware of.
Persons registered on the SDB account will have access to the box during bank hours. It may be useful to add another person, whether a spouse, adult child or another person in a close, trusting relationship, to the box account. From an Estate planning perspective, it is useful to allow certain persons access to the box, for reasons I will explain shortly.
What to hold and who should know
Useful as they are, SDBs do not tend to cost much (usually under $150 per year). They are convenient and, during banking hours, are easy to access.
It is prudent to keep Vital documents in a box. At home, they are more easily misplaced. A misplaced marriage certificate kept at home may need to be ordered again, which will be expensive and time consuming.
Family heirlooms and small, valuable items (such as coins and jewelry) are also easily lost if kept at home and I find it common among clients to place those kinds of items in SDBs.
The person setting up the SDB account should never be the only person who knows its contents. A spouse, child, sibling or other, trusted person should at least know that a box exists. In addition, some vital documents might be better kept at home. For example, a Representation Agreement, for health care, might be needed on an urgent, quick basis where, for example, the Adult is rushed to hospital. A person named as Representative should be able to get the document without a concern as to banking hours or, for that matter, where the access key to the box might be found. I do not recommend holding an original Representation Agreement in a SDB.
It is different with a Will or Power of Attorney. A Will kept at home is, over many years, typically misplaced. A Will maker might one day take a look at her or his Will and then put it somewhere once they finish. A year later, the Will may not be in the same place.
With a Power of Attorney, this document should be kept in a secure place. Powers of Attorney are powerful documents, dealing with the management of a person’s finances. In my opinion, it is a mistake to keep them at home. They should be kept in a secure location, such as in a SDB or a Lawyer’s or Notary’s office.
An Executor or Attorney appointed under a Power of Attorney is a person who is trusted. They should be told where the original is being kept.
When a document is actually needed
An Executor or an Attorney will, at some point, need to get the original. A problem arises when such a person is not named on the box account.
If the Executor needs a Will because the account holder has died, the Bank staff will take the person’s ID and key, and then open the box. They will prepare a written inventory and provide the person with a copy of the list of items found in the box. The Bank will usually release the original Will to the person. It is easier, however, if the person is named on the box account. This is something that should be discussed at the Estate planning stage.
Things could be more complex with a Power of Attorney. If the appointed Attorney is not registered on the box account, access to the document can be difficult. Understandably, banks do not release such documents easily. I advise persons making Powers of Attorney to take their appointed person to the branch where the box is located, introduce the person to the bank staff, let staff take ID and have the person sign a Signature Card, so that the bank has their signature for future recognition. Access should be discussed with Bank staff.
Again, the issue is more simple if the Power of Attorney is kept in a Lawyer’s or Notary’s office. Banking hours are not at issue because law firms and Notary firms tend to be open longer. Again, access just needs to be arranged when signing the document.
Years ago, I was acting in an Estate, where the original Will was apparently held in a SDB, at a Bank in Vancouver. As we needed the original Will for Probate purposes, I inquired with the Bank as to the box, only to be told that the particular branch had moved. Nobody representing the Bank knew where the particular SDB went and the original Will was lost.
A SDB cannot be considered as an alternative insurance policy. Banks and Credit Unions do not insure the contents of SDBs.
Safety deposit boxes are really practical and convenient. They are not expensive. While I encourage anyone to get one, plan what items you want to store and whom you want to have access.