You have precious items that you want to keep safe, so of course you are considering getting a safe deposit box. But you are wondering just how safe they are -- who can get in and under what conditions?
The answer will depend on where your safe deposit box is located -- what type of institution, what state, local rules, and more. Let's take a look at some situations when a safe deposit box can be opened by court order or otherwise.
The most common situation in which someone's safe deposit box is ordered open is after a death, in the context of probate. Note that a co-holder of a safe deposit box will never need a court order to access the box. But if no surviving box holder remains, there are rules that outline how such boxes can be accessed by designated individuals for the specific purpose of managing the decedent's estate.
Let's use the California Probate Code Section 331 as an example. In that statute, a court order is not necessarily required under some conditions. The financial institution that allows the box to be opened must request identification and other documentation but it is not responsible for ensuring that the person presenting the request is who they say. In other words, should someone somehow access the box unintentionally, the financial institution will not be liable, if it went through the correct procedures.
Crime and Taxes
The Internal Revenue Service can seek a court order to open a safe deposit box, and can use the order to obtain specified things within the box. Similarly, a criminal prosecution could result in a court order to open the box.
Court orders, like warrants, must be specific. If a government agency or prosecutor is seeking a particular document or a weapon, say, and there is sufficient evidence to support a reasonable belief that the item is in a safe deposit box, then it may be opened with a judge's approval.
That said, only those items specified by the order can be removed. Just like police cannot use a specific warrant for a general premises search, statutes do specify who must be present when a box is open to ensure that the authorities also follow rules.
Talk to a Lawyer
If you are interested in safeguarding your precious goods but concerned about the best place to keep them, speak to a lawyer. Counsel can advise you on finances and estate planning generally, and specifically research the rules applicable to your situation. If you are a defendant and are concerned about court orders and access to your safe deposit box, get help with your defense.