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Locate and Inventory Safe Deposit Boxes in North Carolina Estate Administration

Posted on: July 8th, 2016
safe deposit box inventoryOne of an executor’s duties is to inventory all of a decedent’s assets, including those in a safe deposit box. Yet, in order to do so, the executor must know of the existence and location of the safe deposit box. In an increasingly digital world, executors and surviving family members face greater challenges identifying assets. With online banking and electronic statements becoming more prevalent, records of a safe deposit box could be inaccessible (unless the decedent addressed digital assets in their estate plan). How can one locate a safe deposit box during probate? Since this is a common place for individuals to store a copy of their will, finding a box is often one of the first steps of estate administration:
  1. Key. When inspecting the decedent’s personal items and home after their death, surviving family may discover a safe deposit box key. The bank name might not be printed on the key, but it provides proof that a box exists. Usually an individual maintains a box at one of the banks where they hold accounts.
  2. Bank accounts. If the decedent kept files of paper bank statements, identifying their bank accounts is much easier. A statement might show an auto-draft fee paid for a deposit box or the executor or surviving family could inquire with each bank about the presence of a box. However, as noted above, many individuals opt for online banking. The majority of banks now encourage their account holders to opt for electronic statements and charge for paper statements, making hard copy records unappealing. When it comes to digital accounts, the Terms of Service of each unique account provider must be followed and these terms usually dictate that only the named account owner may use the online access. Some states have enacted digital powers of attorney, documents that grant a trusted person legal authority to access and manage online accounts, and statutes that provide executors limited powers over digital assets. North Carolina does not currently have a statute conveying such powers. 
  3. Credit report. When identifying a decedent’s bank accounts through a paper trail or electronic means proves unsuccessful, the decedent’s credit report provides a record of credit inquiries, which could point to financial institutions where the decedent opened an account. The executor will usually request a copy of the credit report to identify debts of the estate that need to be discharged.

Once a box is located, an inventory must be made by the executor or, in some cases, by a clerk of court. North Carolina statutes also provide that “qualified persons,” defined as “a person possessing a letter of authority or a person named as a deputy, lessee or cotenant of the safe-deposit box to which the decedent had access,” may be able to inventory the box without the presence of a clerk. If a qualified person conducts the inventory, he or she must provide a copy to the bank or institution where the box is located and the person(s) holding a key to the box.

Every item in the box must be included in the inventory. If a will is found, whether the only copy or a more recent version, the document is required to be submitted as part of the probate file. According to Estate Procedures for Executors from the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, “if a will is discovered in the safe-deposit box, it must be filed with the Clerk of Superior Court. [G.S. 28A-15-13(d)].” 
 
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