View Full Version : How to get into someone's safety deposit box after they died?

04-11-2012, 11:20 PM
Hey Crime/Thriller writers, and all others with safety deposit box experience,

My story has stumped me on this issue. My main character's lover dies, and he leaves behind a mysterious key to a safety deposit box. They were never married. The deceased wouldn't have listed the MC as any kind of beneficiary. But the deceased also doesn't have any dependents/ beneficiaries to his stuff. This is an urban fantasy that makes sense in his *world.* The deceased had superpowers which allowed him to live well beyond the normal life span. He was a loner, selfish and didn't expect to die.

Anyway, my MC needs to get to his stuff. He has the key, but I'm wondering what else he would need to access the box (during banking hours; he's not a burglar). Could he produce the guy's death certificate and/or police report showing that there's no next of kin? Hmmm...maybe he could forge his name on one of those documents as the next of kin? I'd like the bank to be in a foreign country where people hide their money, possibly somewhere in the Caribbean.

Or, might I be better off having the MC impersonate the deceased, or someone he listed as a beneficiary to the box? I imagine banks require you to list someone in order to get a box, huh?

Thanks a ton!

Ol' Fashioned Girl
04-11-2012, 11:30 PM
When my father-in-law died, my husband had to produce documents (notarized, of course) that named him as the Executor of the estate. No one's going to be able to legally get access to a safe deposit box who isn't either listed as an owner or named as someone legally able to get access after a death... at least not in the real world. :)

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV (or on the internet or anywhere else). This was how it was done in the year 2000 in Okiehoma.

04-12-2012, 12:30 AM
If this is in a foreign country where people hide things, it's possible ID was never required, and some form of passwords are used to indicate ID.

04-12-2012, 12:45 AM
This is a thought by someone who does not have a safety deposit box, nor recommend them ... (death issues deprive you of getting into a box even if you are co-owner, in many banks, until the issues are all settled.)

Do the banks bring the box to you or do you have privacy in the area where they are kept.

two possibilities

both involve getting another box in that bank for yourself..

if there is privacy just go to the box you want when in private


get permission to get to box and ask for the box you want for delivery rather than the one you just got

got no idea if/what safeguards are in place regarding this ... neither would most readers ?

04-12-2012, 01:15 AM
It'll pretty much depend upon four things:

1. The applicable law in that jurisdiction...

2. The last will/testament of the deceased...

3. The specific codicils found in the lease contract (for the security box) to include agreed upon protocols...

4. Any court involvement and/or oversight...

FWIW, item No.4 can often trump the others...

I'd recommend ascertaining the applicable legal requirements in the story's location and then go from there...

(Disclaimer - I'm not an attorney, but I've gotten access to a number of decedents' safe deposit boxes pursuant to search warrants.)

04-12-2012, 01:15 AM
Each safe deposit box has two keys, one the bank's, the other the box holder's. To access your own box, you either have to be known on sight to a bank employee (like a business owner who deposits each day's receipts in person) or show ID and sign a log book. They'll check to see if the signatures match.

A bank employee and the box holder go into the room where the safe deposit boxes are. The bank employee unlocks a door which covers just that one box. The box holder unlocks the inner door and draws out the box, which is like a drawer with a cover on it. The bank employee cannot see the contents.

There are usually private rooms or booths if the person needs a bit of time to deal with what's in the box. Or the bank employee may turn away to allow the privacy to get out or put in a single item, then return the box to its place and relock both locks.

So getting a second box at the same bank won't get you access to the box of the dead person.

Upon the death of the box holder, the executor of the estate can bring the necessary paperwork which allows the bank to open their lock. The executor must have the decedent's key, or bring in a locksmith to drill out the lock. The estate will be charged for replacement lock and any necessary repair.

The days in which a bank employee brings you a box in a little private room are long gone. So are the days in which one master key opened all the bank's locks, for precisely the reasons Porter gave--it's too easy to access a box to which you have no legal right.

Of course, in an urban fantasy world, things can be very similar but not identical to the reality of this world--but plenty of readers will be fully familiar with how it works, so you need to get basic security aspects right.

Forged documents might make the person appear to be the executor, especially if they are issued from a state other than the one where the box is located, so the bank employees won't be terribly familiar with exactly how they usually look.

Maryn, whose husband has been executor a handful of times

04-12-2012, 01:34 AM
Wow - thanks for all the great advice everyone above :)

Now the foreign country angle is pulling at me, since a) as lbender and maryn note, there could be go-arounds like a lower threshold of security and/or an inability to authenticate documents, and b) as a reader, my suspension of belief would be pretty high since who the heck knows how these things work in Barbados? (except the 1%, I guess)

Maryn - I absolutely agree: I want to get my basic security issues right even though this is a urban fantasy. Most aspects of the world are modern/familiar, so it's not like I'm inventing Gringotts Wizarding Bank.

With that said, I wonder what your reaction to this scenario would be: the guy brings a death certificate, some (forged) notarized letter naming him as executor to the estate, and the key to this fictional bank in Barbados, and explains so-and-so died, I need to clear out his accounts?

Cathy C
04-12-2012, 01:48 AM
If your person has a death certificate and one key, they may (in many states) be able to go to the bank, state that there is a Will in the box that names the person appearing as the executor and the EMPLOYEE (along with a bank officer) will go into the vault and look. If there is indeed a Will there, and it does indeed name the person appearing, the Will will be given to the executor and the box can then be accessed once a probate is begun.

But if it's your world, you make the rules. :) So long as they make reasonable sense to the reader, you're good to go!

04-12-2012, 02:01 AM
If your character died completely intestate, you might, just might, have your character convince a probate judge to allow him to inherit if he can convince the judge they had a relationship and there are no other relatives around.

This varies wildly by state.