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By: Rebecca L. Nichols, Esq.

Published at

16 February 2024

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Accessing Safety Deposit Boxes After Death: A Florida Probate Law Guide

Losing a loved one is challenging, and dealing with their belongings can be confusing. One area of confusion surrounds gaining access to safe deposit boxes before being appointed as a personal representative.

In the United States, about 1 in every 13 people rent a safe deposit box, highlighting the significance of this issue. This guide aims to clarify the process of accessing a safe deposit box in Florida probate In compliance with the state's probate laws.

Understanding the rules and regulations governing safe deposit boxes in Florida is crucial for a smooth probate process. Access to the box depends on its ownership. Joint ownership allows immediate access to a surviving owner. If a safe deposit box is owned solely by the deceased or if designated beneficiaries exist, they must present proof of their designation. Under Florida law, specific parties can access the deceased's safe deposit box in the presence of a bank officer when a Personal Representative of the estate is not yet appointed.

Who Can Access A Safe Deposit Box After Death

Eligible individuals include the decedent’s spouse, parent, adult descendant, or a person named as a personal representative in a copy of a purported will produced by such person. It is important to note that this particular law in Florida allows eligible individuals to “open and examine the contents of the safe deposit box.” It does NOT allow eligible individuals to remove all contents of the box, such as jewelry, coins, and the like.

Before a court issues Letters of Administration, only the following documents can be removed from the safe deposit box:

  1. Any writing purporting to be the decedent’s will or a codicil thereto. a. The bank officer must provide this document directly to the court having probate jurisdiction in the county in which the bank is located.
  2. Any writing purported to be a deed to a burial plot or giving burial instructions. a. This document may only be released to the individual requesting the search.
  3. Any document purporting to be a life insurance policy on the life of the deceased. a. This document may only be released to the beneficiary named in the life insurance policy.

Accessing a Safe Deposit Box Without Being Appointed as Personal Representative or Letters of Administration: The Process

  1. Gather documents: Assemble the death certificate, will (if any), and proof of relationship to the deceased (e.g., birth certificate, marriage certificate).
  2. Notify the bank: Inform the bank holding the safe deposit box about the individual's death and inquire about their procedures to access the safe deposit box.
  3. Provide the bank with the required documentation.
  4. Open and examine the contents of the safe deposit box. As discussed above, only certain documentation may be removed.

Beyond the Practicalities: Do’s and Don'ts.

If there is no Personal Representative appointed, accessing a safe deposit box comes with a specific set of rules according to Florida Probate Laws. Here are some Do's and Don'ts:

Do's

  1. Do Check Eligibility: Before trying to access the safe deposit box, ensure you are an eligible person as defined by Probate Florida Statute 655.935.
  2. Do Maintain Presence of an Officer: Remember you must be accompanied by a bank officer to ensure compliance with Florida statute.

Don'ts

  1. Don't Remove All Contents: While you can open the safe deposit box and examine its contents, only the will, any life insurance policies, and burial plot deeds can be removed. The rest of the contents should be left until a personal representative is appointed.
  2. Don't Skip the Death Certificate: You need to present a certified copy of the decedent's death certificate to the bank before attempting to open it. Adhering to these rules simplifies the process and reduces potential legal issues while accessing a deposit box in the absence of a Personal Representative of the decedent’s estate being formally appointed by a probate court.

Seeking Support

Professional guidance from Florida probate estate lawyers can help navigate legal matters surrounding the death of an individual. Their expertise can lessen the burden on the surviving loved ones and ensure everything is handled legally and ethically. Accessing a safe deposit box after death may involve legalities, but understanding the process, gathering necessary documents, and seeking guidance can help you handle your loved one's belongings respectfully and bring closure.

Disclaimer: This blog post is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice. Always consult with a legal professional or an estates and trusts attorney for specific advice related to your situation.

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