In addition to in-home fireproof safes, a common place for families to store important documents is a safe-deposit box at their bank. A Will, titles to real property and vehicles, life insurance policy information, trust paperwork, and other critical documents may be inside. In North Carolina, accessing a decedent’s safe-deposit box may require several steps depending on the individual attempting to open it.
Individuals may access a safe-deposit box without the presence of the clerk of superior court if they are lessees, co-tenants, or deputies of the decedent’s safe-deposit box. Simply having a key does not permit an individual access to the contents of a safe-deposit box. An official of the clerk of superior court need not always be present for the opening of a safe-deposit box for executors or administrators not qualified under the aforementioned requirements; a bank representative will suffice in most cases.
Inventory of the safe-deposit box after an individual’s death in North Carolina is required and is completed by the clerk, bank representative, or the qualified person, as the case may be. Copies of the inventory should be provided to the institution where the box is located and, when applicable, to a non-qualified person in possession of a key to the box. If a Will is found in a safe-deposit box, the clerk or the qualified person accessing the box is required to file it with the court.
What if bonds or family heirlooms, such as jewelry, are found in the safe-deposit box? The items must be listed on the inventory. The personal representative of the estate may use some or all of the assets found in a safe-deposit box to satisfy the decedent’s remaining debts and ensure applicable tax requirements are met. Unless the decedent’s assets are “expressly excluded,” the North Carolina General Statutes state:
All of the real and personal property, both legal and equitable, of a decedent shall be assets available for the discharge of debts and other claims against the decedent’s estate.
Accessing a safe-deposit box is one of the first steps surviving family members should take after a loved one passes away as the contents may significantly affect how the decedent’s estate is distributed. If the decedent had not advised their family members where the safe-deposit box was located, surviving relatives may contact the decedent’s estate planning attorney or each of the financial institutions where accounts were maintained in order to determine the location of the box. If no Will is found in the box, at home, or supplied by an attorney, North Carolina intestacy laws govern asset distribution when an individual dies without a Will.