Who Owns Contents of a Joint Safe Deposit Box After Death?

I’m often involved in disputes over the contents of safe deposit boxes – usually when the boxes are jointly leased. A recent case in Forsyth County provides a helpful reminder of the rules involved.

An older woman Smith and her niece Jones jointly leased a bank safe deposit box. At some point over the years Smith placed several items, including a container full of cash, in the box. When Smith died, Jones removed the contents of the box and the executor of Smith’s estate sued Jones for doing so.

The executor argued that the contents of the box belonged to Smith and therefore were to pass under Smith’s Will (apparently to persons other than Jones). Jones argued that because the box was jointly leased, she was entitled to anything in the box at Smith’s death. The executor won. Why?

Jones’ argument hinged on language in the safe deposit box rental agreement providing that either of the joint lessees could access the box without the other one’s consent, and that upon the death of either of them the surviving lessee would continue to be able to access the box.

The court, however, noted the important point that Jones was overlooking: “The safe deposit box rental agreement governed only the rental of the box and not the ownership of the contents stored in the box.”

In other words, while Jones was correct in arguing that the agreement permitted her to access the box after Smith’s death without obtaining permission from the executor of Smith’s estate, it did not serve to pass title (ownership) of the contents in the box from Smith to Jones. If Smith owned those contents prior to death then after Smith’s death those same contents were owned by Smith’s estate and not by Jones.

In Georgia, unlike other states such as New York, a safe deposit box is not “sealed” upon death. If there is a surviving joint lessee he or she can still access the box. If there is not a joint lessee, any interested party may go through a quick and simple court proceeding to obtain access to the box for purposes of pulling out a Will and any life insurance policies.

Bucky Highsmith is an estate attorney and partner with Stewart, Melvin & Frost, a North Georgia law firm based in Gainesville, Ga.

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