Let’s say your mother passes away. She told you that she has a will and maybe she said something about a trust too but you can not find them. You know that she had a safe deposit box at a bank but they will not let you in to look because she did not list you as a signer on the safe deposit box. You expect you will need to file probate but know that you need to give the court a copy of the will first. Can anything be done to give you access to the safe deposit box?
Fortunately Oregon law gives certain people, such as spouses and heirs, to gain access to the box for specific purposes.
Who owns a safe deposit box? Banks own the box itself and they rent its use to customers. The customers own the contents of the box. This means that even if you have a key, you cannot access the safe deposit box if the bank doesn’t believe you have authority to.
Banks are required to allow access if you are 1) within a class of persons authorized by Oregon law and 2) your reasons for access are valid according to that law.
First, you must be within the list of authorized “interested persons” as described in ORS 708A.655(3). Examples of interested persons include heirs, surviving spouses, a proposed Personal Representative as named in a Will, a Successor Trustee named in a Trust, and an agent named in a Power of Attorney are all interested persons who can ask to see the contents of a safe deposit box. Note this does not necessarily mean you are able to take any contents.
Second, you must have a valid reason for asking the bank to open and examine the contents of the safe deposit box (see ORS 708A.655(2)(a)). Examples include, if you have reason to believe the box contains property of the decedent, a copy of the Will of the decedent, a copy of their Trust, or other documents. In those cases your request to open and examine the contents of the box should be allowed. Banks MUST allow access if you comply with ORS 708A.655 because the statute says that financial institutions “shall” allow access.
The third and final requirement to be able to see the contents of the box is to supply the bank with an affidavit attesting to the above requirements. Attached to the affidavit should be supporting documentation such as a death certificate and proof you are an “interested person”.
But how am I able to legally take possession of the contents of the safe deposit box? This requires additional authority. Generally only a personal representative or claiming successor may do this. Then the bank will release the contents to you to safeguard until it is properly distributed in probate or through the small estate process.