Safety deposit boxes…what’s in the box?

I paid a visit to a branch of a high street bank shortly before Christmas 2021 to collect the contents of a safety deposit box. The box belonged to my late client who held an account with the branch for a number of years. I was alerted to the existence of the box when I wrote to my client’s bank when she passed away. I attended the bank with an official copy of the Grant of Probate together with my identification and a letter of authority signed by my client (the executor) to present to the bank manager.

Thereafter I was presented with a rather innocuous black tin with a lock and thanked for attending the branch. I asked the bank manager whether he could also give me the key and at this point, I discovered that there was no key!

The bank manager informed me that it was the bank’s policy for the owner of the contents of the box to retain the key. Thereafter, following discussion with the executor and a check of all of the keys I held for the deceased, I had no option but to attend my local locksmiths in order to gain access to the box (with further authorisations obtained from the executor).

Put simply until this point neither the bank, the executor, or I had any idea what was in the box! Thanks to our local locksmith, we determined that my client used the box to store valuable jewellery items, which have now been valued as part of her estate so that they can be distributed to the beneficiaries of her will.

Points to consider when dealing with safety deposit boxes

This exercise has highlighted some key issues.

  • Safety deposit boxes are still used! They are a way in which precious items are safely stored in the absence of a home safe. A quick search online reveals that in addition to a physical box with or without a key, other banks operate boxes which are accessible by key cards, pin numbers and even fingerprint recognition technology.
  • When you are dealing with the estate of a loved one, don’t forget to ask the bank if a safety deposit box was set up. In my client’s case, a regular fee was not being paid but there may be clues in the historical bank statements to indicate a monthly or annual rental charge especially if the bank is storing larger items. Had I not asked the question, we would never have known about the existence of the box.
  • These items (whether they be antiques, jewellery or heirlooms) are counted as part of the deceased person’s estate, which means they need to be valued for Inheritance Tax purposes. As I mentioned above, I could only access the safety deposit box once the Grant of Probate had been issued. The bank may have no information about the contents of the box (in many cases the customer only has to sign a declaration that the box does not contain prohibited items) so it will be down to the executor to arrange for a valuation of the contents once they are accessed and submit a corrective account to the estate value to HMRC, together with the extra Inheritance Tax.

Tips to consider if you are considering using safety deposit box

If you are actively storing items in a safety deposit box or are thinking about doing so, I have devised some tips.

  • Do not use safety deposit services to deposit your will or any other testamentary documents - they will be needed shortly after your death and can be stored free of charge by Russell-Cooke in our fire and flood proof strong room for as long as you wish.
  • Keep a note of what is in the safety deposit box with your will so that your executors can make provision for it in your estate and know that the items exist and where they are located.
  • If the safety deposit box is secured by a key – leave instructions as to the location of the key with your will.
  • The bank generally does not provide insurance for the items stored, so you should organise or extend your existing insurance cover.
  • Consider whether you would like to make provision for gifting the items you have stored in your will. If you have not made provision for these items they will fall to be distributed along with your other personal possessions or in the absence of any reference to personal possessions, they will fall into the residue and be distributed to your residuary beneficiaries.
  • If you lose the ability to make decisions about your property and finances it will be helpful for your attorneys to have information about items that you are storing in a safety deposit box if these items are relevant to dealing with your personal affairs.

If in doubt, speak to us and we can advise you how best to order your affairs, to make the administration of your estate as straightforward as possible, when the time comes.

Jenny Cooper is an associate in the private client team in the Putney office, and advises on a wide range of private client matters to include estate administration, wills, lasting powers of attorney and trust administration.