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Do's and Don'ts of Safe Deposit Boxes

Find out how to select, how to insure and what to store

Open safe deposit box in bank vault revealing contents including will, stock certificates and jewelry

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As more emphasis is placed on protecting digital records and online identities, a need remains to secure our most precious physical belongings.

"If you have anything that is hard to replace or has sentimental value or you want to pass on to your kids, that's probably the best reason for getting a safe deposit box,” says Dave McGuinn, founder and president of Safe Deposit Specialist, a financial consulting firm. “You've got one central location, and your family knows where your stuff is."

While some big banks are moving away from safe deposit boxes, especially in newly constructed branches, McGuinn estimates there are still over 25 million leased safe deposit boxes in the U.S. That in itself, he says, is evidence of continuing demand.

"My clients are still expanding vaults, adding boxes, and doing everything they can to accommodate their customers,” says McGuinn.


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Think before you store

Best Things to Store in a Safe Deposit Box

  • Adoption records
  • Armed service records
  • Birth certificates
  • Business/legal contracts
  • Citizenship/naturalization papers
  • Collectibles
  • Death certificates
  • Family photos
  • Jewelry
  • Marriage/divorce records
  • Property records
  • Vehicle titles

Worst Things to Store in a Safe Deposit Box

  • Emergency cash
  • Letter of instruction (including funeral instructions)
  • Living will
  • Original last will and testament
  • Passport
  • Power of attorney (financial and health)
  • Uninsured valuables

But just because you have a safe deposit box doesn't mean you should automatically stash all of your valuables in it. Since access to a safe deposit box is limited to banking hours, important items that may be needed at a moment's notice are better off stored elsewhere. Think your passport in case you need to take an emergency trip, or your living will in case you're gravely injured, according to the American Bankers Association (ABA).

Instead, consider keeping these items at home in a fireproof safe. Make sure a trusted friend or family member is aware of what's kept in the safe and the lock combination. You might also consider including this information in a letter of instruction that accompanies your will, and give copies of both to your will's executor. (Ideally, the original copy of your will should be kept at the law firm where it was drafted – or in your home safe if you drafted it yourself – and not in a safe deposit box where it's difficult to retrieve after you die.)

Items that should be stored in a safe deposit box are those that are expensive, or difficult if not impossible to replace. Examples include heirloom jewelry, original copies of adoption papers and important family photos.

"Some of the mega banks put a clause in [the safe deposit box agreement] that you can't put anything of value in them,” says McGuinn, “which kind of takes away the need of a safe deposit box.” However, he notes that banks don't vet what goes in your safe deposit box — you put items in and take items out in private – so the restrictions aren't enforceable.

Some financial institutions also advise against storing cash, guns or other potentially dangerous or illegal items in safe deposit boxes.

Insure the content of your safe deposit box

No matter what you store in your safe deposit box, be aware that it isn't insured by the bank, by the FDIC or by any other government agency. Remember, your bank has no idea what's kept in your box.

"If you don't know what it is, you don't know the value of it,” McGuinn says.

However, items can be insured through your own private insurer. Ask an agent about adding what's called a personal articles floater to your home or auto policy. Be sure to let the insurer know the items are in a safe deposit box, which could score you a discount of about 50 percent on your premium, according to McGuinn.

Valuables such as jewelry or collectibles items should be stored in a safe deposit box only if they are insured, says Naomi Becker Collier, an attorney specializing in trust and estate planning.

The ABA also recommends placing valuables in plastic bags or containers labeled with the leaser's name to protect the box's contents in case of a plumbing catastrophe or flood.

Picking a safe deposit box

Not all banks offer safe deposit boxes, and those that do might not have any available for rent. Check with local branches, in particular older branches that were more likely to have been built with a vault that includes safe deposit boxes.

The price to rent a safe deposit box depends on the bank and the dimensions of the box. Our checks with several major banks put the price of a small 3x5 box — 3 inches tall and 5 inches wide; depth varies — at $50 to $55 a year. Larger boxes run more annually: 5x5, $70 to $85; and 3x10, $80 to $90. You'll probably be required to put down a refundable deposit, perhaps $10 to $25, for the key. If lost, the bank will charge you to drill into the box to replace the lock.

McGuinn developed a safe deposit report card that includes 30 questions that should be asked of financial institutions before signing a lease. The more “yes” responses, the better the vault is secured.

Once you pick a safe deposit box, let someone know where the box is. If you trust that person enough, put them on the safe deposit box's contract. If you pass away, this will allow the person access without unnecessary legal entanglements and court orders.

If you’ve appointed someone as your financial power of attorney, that person may be able to access the box during your lifetime, according to Collier, the attorney. However, a power of attorney is no longer valid once you die.

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