I was recently asked at a presentation I gave on estate planning what the rules are for accessing a safe deposit box after a loved one passes away. Audience members were surprised to learn about the restrictions on entering a safe deposit box after the holder dies. Since people often keep important documents, such as wills, insurance papers, deeds, as well as other valuables in a safe deposit box at their bank or other financial institution, I am going to review the general rules for accessing a safe deposit box after the holder’s death.
While a person is alive, the safe deposit box holder and any joint holder can access the box at any time. However, the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue has imposed rules limiting access to safe deposit boxes after the owner’s death until an inventory of the box is conducted. There are two exceptions to the general rule restricting access to a box until it is inventoried. First, the holder’s surviving spouse, if the surviving spouse held the safe deposit box jointly with the deceased person, continues to have unrestricted access to the box. Second, the executor named in the box holder’s will can enter the box to remove the will and burial instructions. This means that with the exception of a spouse who jointly held a safe deposit box with the deceased, no one else can remove property from a safe deposit box without following additional procedures mandated by the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue.
Thus, except as previously noted, an executor named in the will may only review and/or remove the contents of the deceased holder’s safe deposit box after giving the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue at least seven days prior written notice. Then, within 20 days after entering the safe deposit box, the executor must return a completed Safe Deposit Box Inventory Form to the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue. This requirement to provide an inventory is in large part to ensure that the contents of the safe deposit box do not escape Pennsylvania Inheritance Tax. However, no inventory is required to be filed by the surviving spouse for a jointly held box.
If you need help complying with Pennsylvania Department of Revenue procedures for entering a safe deposit box or have questions about whether a safe deposit box is right for you, please contact my office in Jenkintown.