Should you store your estate planning documents in a safe deposit box?

Written by Stephanie Watkins, Estate Planning Paralegal

For years legal professionals have advised their clients to store their estate planning documents in a safe deposit box. Safe deposit boxes have always been one of the best document storage solutions: the documents are kept safe from theft or fire and when the lessee of the box is deceased, the proper parties have ease of access to the decedent’s will. That may be changing.

Arizona statute states that once a safe deposit box lessee dies, the box “may be opened by two employees of the lessor [e.g., bank] in the presence of any person claiming to be interested in the contents”. The employees may remove any testamentary documents and give them to any person named in the documents as executor.  Because the statute uses the word “may” rather than “shall”, the final decision of whether to allow access to the safe deposit box is up to the bank and, unfortunately, some banks have a policy that is not in line with the statute.

A client we are assisting with a probate has a copy of his father’s will and his father told him before his recent death that the original is in his safe deposit box. Our client has taken the copy of the will to the bank, showing that he is the Personal Representative appointed in the will, but the bank is requiring our client to wait more than 30 days to access the safe deposit box. In the meantime, our client’s father owned a rental property in Washington state that he fears has been taken over by squatters and he’s powerless to act on behalf of the estate until we can open the probate.

Safe deposit boxes work well when you want to store valuable personal property (jewelry, coins, etc.), but it might be better to store your will—and any other items or documents that require immediate access upon your death–in a safe in your home.