Since the mid-1800s, people have been using safety deposit boxes at their local bank or credit union to store important documents and valuables, like jewelry or rare collectibles. While some banks have scaled back or eliminated their safety deposit box service as popularity has waned, it’s still critical to know if a loved one has one and what steps to take in the event of their death.

To this day, many Americans use a safety deposit box to store legal documents like a last will and testament, living will, burial arrangements, and Power of Attorney documents. It’s actually a less-than-ideal place to store this kind of information, which may be needed unexpectedly and in a hurry. But if you find yourself in the position of managing the legal affairs of a family member or close friend, the information below may prove useful.

The good news is that the State of Illinois put legislation in place to assist in this specific circumstance. It’s called the Illinois Safety Deposit Box Opening Act. 

What is the Illinois Safety Deposit Box Opening Act?

The Safety Deposit Box Opening Act was drafted to resolve a complicated yet all-too-common situation. Often, a will is stored securely in the safety deposit box. Previously, the only people who could legally access the box were the person leasing it (the lessee) and the executor of the estate. Without being able to review the will, the identity of the executor would remain unknown, as would the decedent’s final wishes.

To circumvent the need for lengthy and expensive court proceedings to appoint a representative, who only then could gain access to the box, Illinois put the Safety Deposit Box Opening Act into effect. Now, what is known as an ‘interested person’ can request that the bank or other institution that leases the box (lessor) open the box. The sole purpose of this would be to search for two estate planning documents: the will or burial instructions.

Should a will be located during the search, it would then be properly filed with the clerk of the probate court in the county where the decedent last resided.  

Who Can Open the Box, and When?

According to the Safety Deposit Box Opening Act, it is only upon the death of a sole lessee, or the death of the last surviving owner of the box, that the box can be accessed by the ‘interested person’. They would also need to present required documentation, which we will outline below.

The law has specific definitions for who would qualify as an ‘interested person’. These include:

  • Any person who immediately prior to the death of the lessee had the right of access to the box as a deputy;
  • Any person named as executor in a copy furnished by him of a purported will of the lessee;
  • The spouse, an adult descendant, parent, brother or sister of the lessee;
  • If none of the persons described above is available to be present at the opening of the box, the term ‘interested person’ also means any other person who the lessor in its sole discretion determines may have a legitimate interest in the filing of the lessee’s will or in the arrangements for his burial.

Can Access Be Denied?

There are conditions that would make the lessor of the safety box in question legally obligated to refuse or deny access. These conditions occur when the lessor receives any of the following:

  • A copy of letters of office of the representative of the deceased lessee’s estate;
  • Other applicable court order;
  • A small estate affidavit in accordance with Article XXV of the Probate Act of 1975. 

Under other circumstances outlined in the law, the lessor has the authority to allow or deny access. The choice is theirs when:

  • The box has previously been opened in accordance with the Act;
  • The lessor has received notice of a written or oral objection from any person or has reason to believe that there would be an objection;
  • The lessee’s key or combination is not available.

What Documentation Do I Need to Access a Safety Deposit Box?

In order to access a box based on the stipulations of the Safety Deposit Box Opening Act, the lessor will require what is referred to as ‘satisfactory proof of death’. This means you would want to obtain and provide a death certificate – or in the case of there being multiple lessees for the box, death certificates for all parties on the contract.

In addition, the lessor will require an affidavit that affirms the individual seeking access to the box is searching for the decedent’s will or documents related to burial arrangements, that they believe these documents may be stored in the safety deposit box, and that the individual is an ‘interested person’ as defined above.

What Can I Remove from the Safety Deposit Box?

It is important to note that there are only two types of items that can be removed under the allowances of the Safety Deposit Box Opening Act. One type is any documentation that appears to be a will or written amendment to a will (codicil), which would be removed by the lessor for filing. The other is burial documents, which can be taken by the ‘interested person’.

If you were hoping to nab the diamond ring or the antique coin collection, the Safety Deposit Box Opening Act isn’t going to help you. But the law does solve a common problem and will be most helpful for anyone in the State of Illinois who needs to access the safety deposit box of a loved one to find a will or burial information.

We’re Here for You

Preparing for the unknown can be difficult, especially if you are doing it alone. Our team of experienced and compassionate advocates is here to help. 

At the Law Offices of J. Jeltes, we are set up to continue serving you during this unprecedented time. We hope everyone is practicing self-care, and staying safe and healthy. As we all adjust to our temporary “new normal,” we know that life’s everyday challenges will continue — and we are here for you. 

Fortunately, legal assistance can be provided remotely and electronically. Currently, clients and potential clients can schedule a meeting or consultation via phone call or Zoom conferencing during normal business hours, or alternate hours upon request. If you or your family is struggling to adjust and you may have a legal issue to address, please don’t hesitate to get in touch to get the conversation started.