Safety Deposit Boxes

Safety deposit boxes are available for lease by many banks.  Most banks who offer safety boxes offer to lease them in joint tenancy form, with their lease provisions providing that all the joint tenants have:

  • Not only access to the contents of the box regardless of whether any of them has died
  • But also the right to remove its contents.

At least for personal property, and particularly nontitled personal property, a safety box in joint tenancy form would appear to be an ideal estate planning tool, for example:

  • A married couple leases a safety box in their names and the names of their children, all as joint tenants.
  • The parents deposit substantial nontitled property in the box, for example:
    • Cash.
    • Bearer bonds.
    • Gold coins.
    • Valuable collections, eg, stamps, coins, jewelry, art, etc.
  • The couple keeps the keys, so the children don’t have access to the box or its contents as long as either parent is alive.
  • The parents provide a method for the children to obtain the key at the death of the last parent to die.
  • The children then obtain access to the box and remove its contents.
  • The contents have passed “outside of probate” from the parents to their children.

At least for nontitled property that could physically fit into a safety deposit box, this would appear to be an ideal probate avoidance device (and estate tax avoidance device, as well) —

Except that it is illegal.

Safety deposit boxes may be held in joint tenancy form.  But unlike with other property, the rights of a joint tenant of a safety deposit box are limited to its access — any joint tenant may access the safety box without the knowledge, consent, or presence of any other joint tenant.  The bank’s safety box lease agreement, however, cannot be used to create a joint tenancy in the contents of a safety deposit box or to provide its joint tenants with “rights of survivorship” to the box’s contents.  Ownership of the contents of a safety deposit box and how its ownership passes following the death of any joint tenant are “determined according to rules of law without regard to the lease provisions.”  RCW 11.02.130

A bank’s safety deposit box lease agreement
cannot lawfully be used for estate planning purposes
as regards the contents of the box.

Side-bar: Access doesn’t equal ownership.