Safe Deposit Box, Access After Death of Renter

Question 

We have a safe deposit box renter who has passed away. Who can access the safe deposit box and what are they allowed to remove from the box?

Answer 

There are very specific provisions in the Estates Code (Sections 151.001 et seq) as to who may enter a safe deposit box after the death of the lessee.

Without a court order either the spouse, a parent, a descendent (at least 18 years old), or a person named as executor of the deceased box holder’s estate in a document that appears to be a copy of the will can have access to the box to examine the contents.  This must be done with an officer of the bank acting as a witness.  The bank may provide the original will of the box holder to the named executor, burial plot information to the person examining the contents, and insurance policies to the named beneficiary.

The bank may release original document(s) mentioned previously to the designated individuals examining the contents of the box provided the bank keeps a copy of any will and obtains a signed receipt for the will and any other document(s) indicating who they were released and delivered to. Copies of the will must be kept for four years after the date of delivery.

The rules with a court order are similar with the exception that a court representative may examine the contents and remove the documents, again provided it is done with a bank officer as a witness and a copy and receipt for any document taken is kept by the bank as outlined above.  Additionally, the judge ordering the examination or his or her agent must also be present.

No other contents of the safe deposit box can be removed except those contents specifically outlined in Section 151.002, Section 151.004, or another law.

Section 151.002 specifies that with a court order a a judge may order the bank to permit a court representative to take possession of: (A)  a will of the decedent; (B)  a deed to a burial plot in which the decedent is to be buried; or (C)  an insurance policy issued in the decedent's name and payable to a beneficiary named in the policy.

Section 151.004 specifies that without a court order, the bank may deliver:

(1)  a document appearing to be the decedent's will to:

(A)  the clerk of a court that:

(i)  has probate jurisdiction; and

(ii)  is located in the county in which the decedent resided; or

(B)  a person named in the document as an executor of the decedent's estate;

(2)  a document appearing to be a deed to a burial plot in which the decedent is to be buried, or appearing to give burial instructions, to the person conducting the examination; or

(3)  a document appearing to be an insurance policy on the decedent's life to a beneficiary named in the policy.

NOTE: If a box is jointly leased, the death of a lessee does not affect the right to access the box or to remove the contents thereof for the surviving lessee unless there is a contract clause to the contrary.