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law offices of merwyn j. miller
191 calle Magdalena, suite 270 • encinitas, ca  92024 • 760-436-8832

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Sealing of Safe Deposit
Boxes in California

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SEALING OF SAFE DEPOSIT BOXES IN CALIFORNIA

What happens to Safe Deposit Boxes when the owner dies?
Who can obtain access at that time?

Question
Answer
Wait 6 months
Sealing not Required
Who can obtain entry to lock box

Dear Mr. Miller: I'm ready to sell my house. I've lived there 44 years but it's finally time to move on. But here's my problem! I was talking to a real estate broker about selling and he asked me for my deed. I got so nervous. The deed is in the safe box and I haven't been able to go to the bank because I just know the box is sealed. You see, my husband passed away three months ago and I don't want to go to the bank and tell them because I don't know what will happen! And I can't get into the box because it's sealed! How can I sell the house or get into the box to get our Living Trust. It isn't fair that they can confiscate my property in my safe box! Can you help?--Frustrated With the System

Dear Frustrated: I sympathize with your anxiety as the system can be confusing to the uninitiated. I am concerned of your desire to sell the house at this time.

Loss of a loved one can be an immensely troubling experience, even with a Living Trust, and most of us have difficulty thinking clearly in such circumstances. I would suggest that you hold off selling for at least six months after your husband's passing. Then, with the help of your advisors, you can decide if selling is really in your best interest. Meanwhile, you should see an attorney competent in this area to discuss probate necessity and avoidance, estate tax obligations, and tax reduction of your estate. He will help you get organized and be able to answer all of your questions.

A few explanations may also help smooth the way when you are ready to sell. First, California law has not required the sealing of safe deposit boxes since 1981. This is why I advise my clients to keep their original wills and other important estate planning documents in this location. If the deed to the property is in the box, by all means, feel free to remove it. And even if you can't find it, a copy from the County Recorder's office should be fine.

Interestingly, even people not listed as signatories on the box can often gain access to it after the box holder has died. This is the case when the non-signatory is searching for the Will. This person will be entitled to open the box with a bank officer present. If a Will is found, he will be allowed to remove it in order to start a court probate and the bank will retain a copy.

Please keep in mind that no two sets of circumstances are identical and that the answer to any legal problem may change drastically based on even a slight change in the circumstances.