Safe Deposit Boxes - What You Need to Know

If you have important valuables and documents that you don't feel comfortable leaving around the house, consider renting a safe deposit box at your local bank.

Why Use a Safe Deposit Box?

Safe deposit boxes are a secure means of storing important documents, jewelry, keepsakes and other valuables. These metal boxes are located inside a sealed vault and are often protected by many layers of security, which can include alarms, cameras and motion detectors.

Things to Store

Safe deposit boxes are ideal for storing the original copies of many important documents and valuable objects. However, space is always at a premium: even the smallest boxes, which measure 3"x5"x24", cost a substantial amount. Common belongings to store include:

  • Birth certificates
  • Adoption papers
  • Property deeds
  • Car titles
  • Family heirlooms
  • Valuable collections
  • Expensive, rarely worn jewelry

Things Not to Store

One of the greatest drawbacks of safe deposit boxes is that access is constrained by the bank’s operating hours. This means that you won't have 24/7 access to the contents of your box. Consequently, it is imperative to avoid storing anything that you might need at a moment's notice. Safe deposit boxes aren't appropriate for items such as:

  • Passports
  • Original powers of attorney enabling others to conduct business on your behalf
  • Medical directives authorizing others to make medical decisions on your behalf
  • Original copies of your will

The Cost of a Safe Deposit Box

The cost of a safe deposit box will vary depending on the size and the location of the bank. Renting a 3”x5”x24” box for one year may cost $65 in New York and just $55 in Maryland. Different banks will also have different sizes of safe deposit boxes available. Boxes will typically be offered from 2”x5”x24” to 10”x10”x24”. Some banks will carry even larger sizes. Box prices will generally start around $60 per year for the smallest options and may reach a couple hundred dollars per year for the larger sizes.

Banks may also charge you other fees in addition to the yearly rental fee on the box. If you miss your annual rent payment, you may incur a late fee. Some places may require a key deposit when they issue your key, and practically every bank will charge you the cost of drilling into your box if you happen to lose your key.

Finally, people who have checking accounts at the same bank as their safe deposit box should be able to avoid the invoice fee, which is charged to anyone who doesn't pay for their box with automatic debits from their bank account. In addition, some banks will offer customers with premium accounts special discounted rates on safe deposit boxes.

How to Access Your Safe Deposit Box

You can apply to be the sole titleholder of your safe deposit box. This means that you will be the only one who can access the contents. Alternatively, you can apply with another individual for joint control of a single box. Safe deposit boxes are protected by two keys: one that the bank gives you and another guard key that the bank keeps. Without these two keys available, the box cannot be opened. Losing your personal key will cost you both time and money, as the bank will have to arrange for a locksmith to drill the lock. You are also required to sign an admissions form every time you open your box.

Safe deposit boxes can also be opened in the event of a court order, a pursuant to search warrant, a rental delinquency on the box or a bank branch closure. In the event of your death, the safe deposit will automatically be sealed. This can be the case even if multiple people have access to the box and only one passes away. It can sometimes take months before outside parties can gain access to the contents of your box.

Additional Tips

Though safe deposit boxes are supposed to be a more secure way to protect your valuables, they are not immune to all disasters. Take extra precautions to protect the contents of your box. For example, it is a good idea to seal documents and other items susceptible to water damage in ziplock bags. Furthermore, keep an inventory of the box’s contents and take photos of belongings you place inside the box. This way, it will be easier to recover your items should there be an unexpected incident. Unlike money in your bank deposit account, the contents of your safe deposit account are not FDIC protected. Therefore, it may be in your best interest to insure the contents of your box as well.

Before renting your box, be sure to visit your bank and make sure that the vault is located in the most secure area of the bank. In the occurrences where safe deposit boxes have been robbed in the past, these generally occurred in banks where the safe deposit boxes were not located in the most secure area.

Keep in mind that some state laws allow banks to drill open and take the contents of boxes that have been delinquent for a certain period of time. Therefore, always be sure to keep up to date with your box’s rent and term period to ensure that this does not happen to you.

The use of safe deposit boxes has been declining over the years. Currently, the service is mostly utilized by older generations and generally overlooked by the millennial population. Due to these trends, most of a bank’s branches will not even offer safe deposit box services nowadays. For those locations that do still have boxes, there may not be any vacant boxes available for rent.

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