By: Eileen Moynahan
As an estate organizer and administrator, I work in the death “space.” Aside from making me tremendously popular at parties, working in my chosen field exposes me to the good, the bad, and the ugly, often disguised as really poor planning. Preparing for end-of-life can be seen as unpleasant, so many of us just haphazardly throw together some plans and move quickly on to another topic. But let’s use some logic as we make these plans so they don’t backfire someday.
Many people think that renting a safe-deposit box (SDB) at their local bank is a great place to store important documents. You know, the documents that you don’t want damaged in a fire or a flood, nor do you want them to be stolen in case of a break-in. I won’t argue against the advantages of having an SDB - go ahead, have a field day, but I will caution you, dear readers, against storing certain items in that SDB.
Should you meet your demise suddenly, without warning, and you don’t have time to visit your SDB first to retrieve important items, the duty falls to your executor (if you have a will), your trustee (if you have a trust), or your administrator (if named by a court). Considering the legal hurdles over which an executor must jump to access the deceased’s SDB, I advise caution on a few points. Here’s what NOT to put in your SDB:
YOUR MEDICAL DIRECTIVES
Have you worked with an elder-law attorney to prepare healthcare directives in case you become incapacitated and are unable to speak for yourself? Excellent! I applaud you. But if you secure these documents in your SDB, they’re worthless. Healthcare proxies are only useful if first responders or your medical Power of Attorney can provide these documents to the hospital to which you’re taken. If you lock ‘em down, they may as well be very expensive toilet paper.
YOUR ORIGINAL WILL OR TRUST
Surveys show that about 70% of Americans now prepare a will or trust in advance of death. This is definitely progress. As you may know, your will names your executor, while your trust names a successor trustee. If you die intestate (without a will or a trust), a court will name an administrator on behalf of your estate. If your original will is locked in an SDB, which is only accessible with a court document plus that tiny key, then your executor has no proof of their authority. This would be necessary to access your SDB in the first place. You know, to find the will. That names your executor. Who can legally access your SDB. See what I mean? It’s a vicious cycle!
YOUR CEMETERY OR MAUSOLEUM DEED
Like that famous line from the movie “Moonstruck,” we’re all gonna die. In most cases, your loved ones will have 1-3 days in which to make arrangements. Perhaps you have carefully selected (and paid for) a plot in advance to make it easier on your family. Accessing that prepaid plot, however, requires the deed. Does your family even know that you purchased a plot, much less where the deed is?? There is no way they can access your SDB in time for your burial… unless you list a relative as co-owner on the SDB AND they know in advance that the deed is in there. As awkward as it may be to discuss this at Thanksgiving dinner (entertaining footnote: my mother did), you DO have to tell someone about the arrangements you’ve made. Unless you want to be disinterred after the original deed is found. Frankly, that’s smelly, traumatic, and expensive. Nobody wants that.
We don’t know when our hour will come. But chances are, the bank will be closed when it does. Lock away the jewels, if you must, but keep your end-of-life documents accessible at all times… not just during bank hours!
Eileen Moynahan founded Legacy Estate Organizing, an estate business that partners with executors to identify assets after a loved one passes away. Her book, After the Funeral: A Practical Memoir for Administering Your Loved One’s Estate, is available on Amazon.
You can reach out to Eileen at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or feel free to visit her website at