The wife of a couple I represented had cancer. Among other things, she had a safe deposit box at the branch of a giant bank. The branch was literally around the corner from their condominium, and she kept her valuable jewelry in the box. While the wife was alive, the husband could enter that box just as she could. After she died, the husband would not deal with the box, despite our insistence. He could not bear to open the box, jewelry or no jewelry, not for over two years.
The couple had three grown sons, and about two years after the wife died, one of the sons married. The husband wanted to give the new daughter-in-law a piece of his deceased wife’s jewelry. He finally went to the bank about the box, key in hand. To his great surprise, however, the bank would not allow him access.
Before the wife died, I had asked the couple to get me a copy of the safe-deposit agreement that they had signed with the bank that pertained to the box. They did not do so, and told me to take their word for it: the husband was “on the box,” they repeated, whatever that meant legally. They did not want me to spend any more time on the subject, despite my pushing them. I gave up on the issue.
Although I never saw copies of the agreement, when the husband called about the problem with the bank, I surmised that the husband appeared on the bank’s records for the box as an agent of the wife, not as a co-lessee with the wife of the box. Under Florida law generally, an agent’s authority terminates upon the death of the person who confers the agency, known as the “principal.” So the bank required a “court order” to allow the husband access to the box. By then, the probate proceedings had been completed – or the husband thought they had been completed. About $1,200 in additional fees later, we obtained the order and he was able to open the box.
If the husband and the wife had been co-lessees of the box, either of them should have been able to obtain access, “regardless of whether or not the other lessee or lessees or any of them are living or competent,” unless the lease or rental agreement specifically provided to the contrary. F.S. 655.937. The only way to know the terms of the arrangement one has with a bank is to read the agreement that pertains to the matter. This applies not only to safe deposit boxes, but also to checking and savings accounts, certificates of deposits, and other arrangements with financial institutions.
The wife’s Last Will left all of her “tangible personal property” to her husband. That category of property includes personal jewelry. She clearly wanted him to have her jewelry. But as I have written before, regardless of what one’s Last Will might say, particular assets often have their own estate plan. That plan must be examined in the estate planning process and changed when it is not consistent with the plan in the Last Will. A safe deposit box and the assets in it are no exception.
There are other complications with safe deposits boxes that we will cover in future posts.