How to Open a Safe Deposit Box After the Death of a Loved One

What do you do when a loved one passes away and you need to open their safe deposit box? Often, a will, burial plot deed, funeral arrangements, or other time sensitive documents are stored inside of the safe deposit box and need to be accessed immediately. While this may seem like a daunting task, New York State has set up provisions to help ease the process.

Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act

Section 2003 of the Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act governs the process of opening a safe deposit box. Under this act, an interested party can go to the Surrogate’s Court in the same county where their loved one died, and file a Petition to Open the Safe Deposit Box.

What is required for a Petition to Open?

In order to file the petition, you will need to have the name and address of the bank where the safe deposit box is, the name and address of the deceased individual, and a death certificate or affidavit from the medical examiner. The petition can be filled out and printed online and then filed at Surrogate’s Court for a $20 fee and an additional $6 per certificate needed to present to the bank.

Next steps

Once the court is in possession of the petition, it will be reviewed and then signed by the judge. If approved, you will be given a signed order and inventory form to present to the bank. In addition to your own identification, you will need to bring an original death certificate. If you are not in possession of the safe deposit box key, you may incur a charge to have a locksmith open it. A bank representative must be present when the box is opened and examined. All contents of the box must be written on the inventory form to be submitted to the court.

What can be removed from the box?

Contents in the box cannot be removed except for the decedent’s will, burial plot deed, and life insurance policy. Copies of these may be made in the presence of a bank representative. The decedent’s will is to be sent to the court where the petition was filed. Any burial plot documents can be handed over to the court or given to the individual arranging the funeral. Life insurance policy documents should be given to the beneficiary of the policy.

What about the other contents of the box?

The remaining contents of the box will be resealed, and the individual who filed the petition will need to determine the next steps to obtain possession of the contents. If a Will was found, a Petition for Letters Testamentary needs to be filed with the court. If there was no Will, a petition for Letters of Administration needs to be filed.   Caution, if there is cash in the box, it may be confiscated by the NYS Department of Taxation and Finance, and you will have to take steps to try and claim it.

Finally, if the decedent’s assets, including the contents in the safe deposit box, are less than $50,000, a Small Estates Affidavit may be utilized instead.

With this, as with all legal matters, you are strongly advised to speak with an attorney.

For questions or assistance, contact the Law Offices of Katharine J. Richards, P.C., at (516) 505-1780 or e-mail