Do we really need an attorney's help to get into my mother's safety deposit box?

Nighthawkcd asked...

My mom passed away this past June in Kingman, Arizona. She had a will that states who will receive the estate. Her will, insurance papers and deeds are locked up in a safety deposit box at a local bank in Kingman. We contacted the bank because we can not find the key to the safety deposit box. They informed us that we needed the death certificate in order to open the box. When we went down to the bank with the death certificate they told us we could not get into the box with out the proper paperwork from an attorney. I just don't understand why we need an attorney just to get into the box.

Also he bank account has been frozen. We are trying to settle what she owes in hospital bills, nursing care, and her house payment. Do we really need an attorney to settle all this?

Dan Lord Las Vegas,NV

Expert Answer

Barbara Repa, a senior editor, is an attorney, a journalist specializing in aging issues, and the author of Your Rights in the Workplace (Nolo), now in its 10th edition.

You should not need to hire a lawyer to get into your mom's safety deposit box. But you may need a good measure of patience and perseverance when dealing with bank officials. If there is no safety deposit box key handy, many banks allow only the person named or appointed as the estate's executor to access the contents. In your case, you don't know whether there was a named executor until you see the will.

Your best hope is to contact the bank president directly, rather than dealing with a teller or other manager, and explain the Catch-22 you are in now.

When it appears a safe deposit box may contain the only known copy of a will or life insurance documents, most banks allow a family member to get access in the presence of a bank officer or two for the specific purpose of searching for a will or burial instructions. They will usually not allow other property to be removed from the box until the person named or appointed as the estate's executor undertakes the steps necessary to transfer the contents.

That is exactly what the controlling law in Arizona requires. If the bank officer won't budge, consider a bit of hardball by presenting him or her with a copy of that law:

6-1008. Procedure on death of lessee In the event only one lessee is named in the lease of a repository and the lessee dies, or on the death of last surviving lessee under a tenancy in two or more names, the repository may be opened by two employees of the lessor in the presence of any person who presents himself and claims to be interested in the contents. The employees may remove any document which appears to be of a testamentary nature and deliver it to any person named in the document as executor or to a clerk of the superior court. The employees may also remove any policies insuring the life of the deceased lessee and deliver them to the beneficiaries named in the policies. All other contents of the repository shall be retained by the lessor and shall be delivered only to the person legally entitled to them.