Is verbal permission enough to open a safe?

1 answer | Last updated: Oct 03, 2010
Gram asked...

My mother put everything in her safe: money, will, everything. There is nothing in the bank. She was recently put into a assisted living home. We do not know anything about her finances, her will, or how much she has left.

I have two sisters and a brother. My younger sister is the only one that has access to the safe. My brother, the oldest, wanted to look in the safe to make sure she had a will and anything else. My younger sister said that we could not go in without mom's permission and Mom had to be there. Mom agreed, and we all made plans to go there and open up the safe. But my younger sister said she talked to an attorney and that no one is allowed in the safe. Meanwhile, how do we know she has not been in there?

My question is: as long as mom OKs this, do we have the rights to go in to the safe and make she everything is where it should be? We believe my younger sister has already been in the safe.

Expert Answers

Steve Weisman hosts the nationally syndicated radio show A Touch of Grey, heard on more than 50 stations, including WABC in New York City and KRLA in Los Angeles. He is a practicing lawyer specializing in estate planning and is admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court. He's a public speaker and commentator who has appeared on many radio and television shows throughout the country, and he's the legal editor of Talkers magazine, the preeminent trade publication of talk radio. His latest book is The Truth About Avoiding Scams.

So long as your mother is mentally competent, she can designate verbally who she wishes to act on her behalf and it appears that she has determined that your younger sister is the person she wants to act on her behalf at this time.  However, if your mother were to become mentally incompetent, her verbal authority to your sister to be able to act on her behalf would be totally ineffective. 

The best course of action would be for all of the family to meet and for you to voice your concerns to your mother as to how her financial affairs are being managed and should be more effectively taken care of in the future.  Your mother should have a lawyer prepare a Durable Power of Attorney for her.  This is a document that would be effective both now and in the future if she becomes incapacitated that authorizes someone or multiple people to act on her behalf in regard to financial matters.  The authority granted in the Durable Power of Attorney can be as broad or as limited as she wants.