A frequent question which arises in probate matters is who owns the contents of a safe deposit box. The fact that a safe deposit box is leased to a husband and wife creates no legal presumption that property contained in the box is owned jointly by the husband and wife. The same principle applies to any safe deposit box owned jointly with (or with access permitted to) several people. For example, in one case the mere presence of bearer bonds in a safe deposit box leased to a husband and wife did not automatically become the property of the surviving spouse, but rather were deemed to be assets of the estate of the deceased husband.
In a different case, bonds located in a safe deposit box leased to a husband and wife were held to be jointly owned, upon proof that the bonds were purchased with funds kept in a joint bank account, were kept in the joint safe deposit box, each spouse had signed the lease to safe deposit box, each had a key and each had complete access to the box.
When the safe deposit box is leased in two or more names, the right of the co-lessee to enter the box is not affected by the death or incapacity of a co-lessee unless the lease contract expressly provides to the contrary. Nor is a co-lessee required to inventory anything removed from the safe deposit box post-death. Because the mere presence of property in a safe deposit box is not conclusive proof of ownership, the personal representative literally may be in a race to the bank to inventory and secure contents before a co-lessee can access and remove property from the box. If the co-lessee gains access to the box before the personal representative, it may become impossible to prove either the contents in the box or the value of those contents. As you can see, personal representatives must be very careful in dealing with safe deposit boxes – – – and have a good pair of track shoes.

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