Clients often give much thought and effort to avoiding probate through titling, beneficiary designations and revocable trusts. Sometimes – in fact often times – an asset or two are left out, thereby triggering probate. One example of forgotten assets are those inside a safe deposit box. As my colleague Brian Abbott explains below, although some states such as Virginia will allow an "interested party" to access the decedent’s safe deposit box, such access is only to retrieve the Will. The Will does not entitle the interested party to the safe deposit box assets. How to get the assets? Probate may be necessary.
The bottom line is you should think of naming an adult child or family member or friend as a joint owner, with a key, so not only can testamentary documents be obtained, but so to can the assets without going through probate. And then confirm with your bank that your plan will work as intended.
Brian Abbott’s explanation:
In practice, a testator will sometimes store his or her original will in a safe deposit box. Under Virginia law, this process, while not uncommon, can present obstacles to retrieving the original will upon the testator’s death for interested parties (e.g., a spouse or heir), along with accessing other contents stored in the safe deposit box. Further, in the event that the will is a "pourover will" into a revocable living trust, the storage of the original will in the safe deposit box by a sole lessee can defeat the aim of outright probate avoidance, forcing the named executor to qualify with Probate for the sole purpose of retrieving the contents of the safe deposit box.
Where a decedent stores his or her original will in a safe deposit box, Virginia law provides a specific process through which an interested party may access the safe deposit box of the decedent lessee. VA. Sec. 6.2-2302 indicates that upon the death of a sole lessee of a safe deposit box, a safe deposit box company "may permit limited access to the box by the spouse or next of kin of the deceased lessee, a court clerk, or other interested person for the limited purpose of looking for a will or other testamentary instruments." Upon request from an interested party to access the safe deposit box, the safe deposit box company may require proof of death as it deems necessary (e.g., the death certificate of the decedent lessee of the safe deposit box). The safe deposit box company may then grant access for the limited purpose of retrieving the original will. The safe deposit box company is required under statute to supervise this process and also is required to retain a copy of the will to maintain in the safe deposit box.
Once the interested party obtains the original will, the named executor should generally make an appointment with the Probate clerk to qualify as executor of the estate. In practice, the Probate clerk has generally allowed an executor to qualify as executor of the estate for the sole purpose of retrieving other contents of the safe deposit box. At the appointment with the Probate clerk, the executor will report the value of the Probate assets in the estate and pay a Probate tax on the reported value. The Probate assets are generally assets that the decedent owned in his or her sole name at the time of death. If there are no such Probate assets, the executor would report the value of the estate as zero and would not owe any Probate tax, although will incur Probate fees.
Upon qualification, the executor will receive a certificate of qualification which will allow the executor to access the contents of the safe deposit box as executor of the estate. Based on policy at Probate, if the will is a pourover will into a trust, the executor will subsequently need to file an inventory and accounting with the Commissioner of Accounts and keep the estate open six months, even if the assets are reported as zero at the time of qualification.