How to gain access to deceased spouse safety deposit box?
April 16, 2016 7:05 PM   Subscribe

Hello, all. My grandfather passed away a few months ago and he has some bank accounts and safety deposit boxes for which my grandmother has no access.

I don't know if he was hiding money, or what, but we know he had them. The bank isn't cooperating, and my grandmothers attorney doesn't seem to know what to do. We're in Oklahoma. Does anybody have experience with this, or do you know the standard operating procedure under these circumstances? It seems to me that she would need to file some kind of request, along with the death certificate, and have a judge order the bank to release the contents.
posted by tellUwut to Law & Government (13 answers total)
IME you get a piece of paper from the court declaring your grandma the executor of his estate. That plus adeath certificate will usually do it.
posted by small_ruminant at 7:31 PM on April 16, 2016

I'm not sure about the legalities involved here, and I admittedly don't know a specific, certain answer, but a couple of questions I have for you:

1. (Dumb question) Does your grandmother have the customer key for the box?

2. Was she listed on the box as (I don't know the specific term) an "alternate" or, in other words someone who can also access the box?

3. There are, I'm guessing, potentially tax issues here, I would think. I imagine the IRS or other government agencies would want to know if there is a huge sum of cash, jewels, or precious metals in the box. Although, perhaps not.

4. You may need to consult a probate attorney (a mere guess).

I can't believe the bank isn't giving your grandmother instructions on what she needs to do. Surely if she shows up with a death certificate they should at least point her in the right direction. I would guess they've clearly been through this a multitude of times before.

This is just a guess, but I fear that you very well may need the assistance of an attorney.

If the bank won't talk at all, as a last resort perhaps talk to the funeral director who handled your grandfather's burial?

And, on preview, it looks like the ruminant beat me to it.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 7:35 PM on April 16, 2016

They have a duty not to give non-owners access. So there's a process to prove the owner is actually dead, and that the person showing up is really their heir. If they didn't, they would be liable to the real heirs if it turned out your grandfather wasn't dead, or your grandmother wasn't an heir or who she said she was, etc.
posted by zippy at 7:52 PM on April 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

If your grandmother's attorney really doesn't know how to handle this very common situation, she should find a different attorney. She is going to need someone who knows what he/she is doing to handle the estate.
posted by FencingGal at 7:56 PM on April 16, 2016 [49 favorites]

I came here to say what FencingGal said. Your grandmother needs a new attorney.
posted by MexicanYenta at 9:46 PM on April 16, 2016 [4 favorites]

Thank you for the responses, guys. To answer the questions asked:
1: She does not have the key.
2. She is not listed as an alternate on neither the box nor the bank account.
3. Yeah, she def needs a new attorney.

I'm going to talk to the bank Monday and, like @fencingGal mentioned, I imagine this isn't the first time this has happened, so I'd expect a properly experienced attorney would have some answers right off the top of their head, or, at the very least, the bank would know would have some guidance to offer.

I'm going to take this over and see what I can get done. How many thousands of times must this have happened over the last decade? Surely, I can find someone in the banking or legal system here in Oklahoma who knows what to do. Something that just came to mind are the various military related credit unions. (Which is where I bank myself). I bet they'd have some answers. I'll give them a call tomorrow.
posted by tellUwut at 6:21 AM on April 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

The process at the bank i worked at in Canada is that you need a death certificate. At that point they will arrange to have a technician come in and drill a hole in the lock of the box to open it. If the person needing access has been appointed the executor of the estate, then they would catalog the contents of the box. If it's just keepsakes and paperwork, then they will release the contents. If it is something that appears to have monetary value, then the bank needs a letter of direction from the executor asking for the contents to be released.

This happens fairly often, and every bank will have an established procedure. You may not need a lawyer to address this issue. (the bank procedure likely does not explicitly require a lawyer.) We handled small estates without one.

Visit the bank and they will outline what their procedure and requirements. Then decide whether you need the expense of a lawyer.
posted by thenormshow at 6:52 AM on April 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think the difference here might be in how you approach it. If she is going in and saying 'I'm his wife and I demand you let me see the box,' I can see how they might say no, we have procedures. If she is going in and saying 'please explain to me the procedure for closing out the box for a person who has passed,' they should easily be able to explain to her what she needs to do.

In my grandpa's case, this took two meetings---first my mom went in with the death certificate and the will which named her the executor. At that meeting, they outlined for her what steps she had to take to close out the accounts and so forth. And there were some papers her sister (who was also an executor) had to sign too, and some other documents they had to locate and obtain. So they went back a second time to get all of that done.

And they did need a lawyer too, but mostly because there was a lot of work to be done re. filing a last tax return, paying out to beneficiaries, selling his house and so forth. I think it would be very difficult to get all of that done without help.
posted by JoannaC at 7:34 AM on April 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

It sounds like your grandmother is telling you what she heard from the bank and from her lawyer, and the information is getting garbled.

The precise steps that are needed vary widely from state to state. A lawyer in Oklahoma is needed. In my state, there are procedures that bypass the need to open an estate and name an administrator if the total assets are below a certain level. There may be something similar in Oklahoma.
posted by yclipse at 10:47 AM on April 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

A good first step might to figure out if your grandfather's estate needs to go through probate. Here are the basic guidelines of Oklahoma. There will give you a good idea whether you are going to have a lawyer involved anyway.
posted by metahawk at 11:37 AM on April 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

nthing that this is a common situation and if her attorney doesn't know what to do she should get a new one.

When my dad died, I produced his death certificate and my Letters Testamentary (I am the executor of his estate) to gain access to his accounts and safety deposit box. This is in a different state, so you should consult with a qualified estate attorney in Oklahoma to help with this, but I can't imagine this is terribly complex - you just need the correct info.
posted by bedhead at 2:34 PM on April 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

We had a situation where my father-in-law passed and we could not locate a signed copy of his will. The one that had been left in an obvious place was unsigned. This left us a problem because we knew at one point there had been a safe deposit box with certain semi-valuable memorabilia in it, and this might have been where a signed copy of the will was.

Banks tend to take their duty to protect safe deposit boxes rather seriously, so it turned into an ugly process of visiting several banks in the area with a copy of the death certificate, and talking managers through the process of "well, of course my wife isn't the executor, because we believe there's a will but we haven't found a signed copy, and we suspect it is in a safe deposit box." A bit of a catch-22. All of the managers eventually indicated in one way or another that they didn't seem to have a safe deposit box in his name, but I think maybe only one actually made an absolute statement.

It was totally different when my wife had been appointed executor. We thought it really strange that no signed will had been found, so we made a second sweep of the same banks. That was pretty easy in comparison. Still didn't find a signed will.

In any case, none of this is particularly unusual in dealing with an estate. Legally, someone needs to be the executor or personal representative of the estate, at which point that person is a legal substitute for your grandfather. The bank may not be too willing to talk to (what are effectively) random people about a safe deposit box, but this shouldn't be a problem for the executor of the estate.

The attorney sounds like maybe a general attorney. You may want to shop around for one who specializes in estates. That's definitely a thing, and a sharp estate attorney is likely to be very helpful in many ways.
posted by jgreco at 4:01 AM on April 18, 2016

I recently closed out a safe deposit box that I inherited from my Mother. The bank insisted that there were two keys but I could only find one in my Mother's belongings. The bank charged me $50 for the missing key. So be warned, if there are no keys there may be a fee for opening the box and re-keying it.
posted by PJMoore at 1:31 PM on April 18, 2016

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