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How To Use Safe Deposit Boxes

When I was a kid, there was always this mystique about safe deposit boxes. My parents never had one so the only experience I had with them involved television shows or movies. The scenes were always of bank robberies, of masked men and women running into a smoke filled room filled (after they blew open the door of course!) with hundreds of these boxes all stacked up nicely and neatly in their little cubbyholes. Inside each was a little treasure chest of riches and these crooks were here to take them.

It wasn’t until I was an adult did I realize that they typically held more pedestrian items such as important paperwork (car and house titles, marriage licenses) rather than sexy uber-valuable jewelry one could fence.


When you get a safety deposit box, you’re essentially renting space inside a bank to store your valuables. The contents of the box are known to you alone, the bank has no right to see what’s inside nor do they really care. When you rent the box, you sign a rental agreement and are issued a key to access the box (the bank does not keep a copy, so don’t lose it or they’ll have to drill into your deposit box – $$$). Only those names that appear on the rental form will be able to access the box 9you won’t be able to give the key to someone and have them get something for you. You can appoint a “deputy” or “agent” who can be given access to the box; you do this by appointing them in the presence of all the names on the rental agreement and a bank employee. Power of attorney does not allow access to a safe deposit box.

Why a safe deposit box and not your closet? Banks will have more security and better protection against catastrophes like fires, floods, and theft. It’s that protection that makes it superior to hiding it in a shoebox in your closet or in a safe in your own home.

Law enforcement: Law enforcement can get access to your safe deposit box if they believe there is reasonable cause to suspect you’re hiding something illegal (they get a court order to open the box). Another way the law can get you is if the IRS freezes your assets, your safe deposit box is included. Finally, your box can be declared abandoned if you fail to pay the fee for a number of years, determined by state law, and all reasonable attempts to contact you have failed.

Bank failures: FDIC insurance does not cover the contents of your box nor should it need to. If the FDIC finds a buyer for the bank, you now can sign a rental agreement with the new bank. If the FDIC can’t, you’ll get access to your box to remove your contents.

What happens if the contents are destroyed? If the contents of the box are destroyed or stolen, you typically turn to your own homeowners insurance. The bank does not insure the contents of your box. If you do get a safety deposit box, call your homeowners insurance company to ensure the contents are covered.

What To Put Inside

If you have no idea what you’d do if you lost it, put it inside a safe deposit box. The superior fire and flood protection makes it a good place to store important documents like family records, insurance policies (a home inventory!), marriage licenses and certificates, any deeds or titles, other important agreements like leases and rental agreements. Beyond documents, you can also put things that either have a lot of monetary value (jewelry or rare collectibles) or emotional value (delicate family photos) for protection.

Here are some quick tips about putting things in a safe deposit box:

What NOT To Put Inside

Since you’ll be subject to the hours of operation of the bank, don’t put anything inside that you think you might need in a pinch. Banks will be closed at night, on weekends, and during holidays so you have to keep that in mind when you decide what to put inside.

Some original documents shouldn’t go into a safe deposit box include a lot of legally prepared documents like wills, power of attorney documents, and medical care directives. The originals should be on file with the attorney (this is often governed by state law) that prepared them and copies can go into your safe deposit box. In the event of your death, others will need to get access to those documents which will be difficult if you’re the only person allowed to access the box.

How Much Does It Cost?

This will depend on the bank itself and the size of the box. Here are three quotes from various banks that might help give you a better idea of how much they cost:

Anyone have experience with safe deposit boxes? Anything I miss or was unclear about? Please let me know in the comments, thanks!