When you are grieving the loss of a parent or other loved one, the last thing you want to think about are the legal implications. However, countless Californians find themselves in a difficult position when they need to obtain a copy of mom or dad’s last will and testament, only to find that it is securely stored in a safe deposit box to which they are not allowed access. California Estate Planning Lawyer Kavesh Minor & Otis

Accessing a California Safe Deposit Box

If you believe that your mother or father’s will is in a safe deposit box, there are ways you can retrieve it. However, the process is dependent on whether your name is listed as party to the account. If you are named as a joint-holder on the account, you will have to give the bank a copy of the deceased person’s death certificate. You may also need to show your copy of the safe deposit lease and photo identification.

If they were the sole key-holder, you must:

  • Obtain the key.
    • If you do not have the key but were named as the estate’s public administrator, you do not need any special documentation to inspect a safe deposit box in the deceased person’s name. As the estate administrator, you are empowered to remove any will or other estate-specific instructions from the box.
    • If you do not have the key and are not the estate administrator, you will have to obtain a letter from the court to access the safe deposit box.
  • Present the bank with a copy of the death certificate or a written statement from the coroner, hospital, or medical professional who can attest to your parent’s death.
  • Present proof of your own identity such as a driver’s license, state I.D., or passport.

Your Next Steps

Once you have furnished the key and necessary documents, you will be granted access to the safe deposit box. If you find a will inside, you will need to give a copy to the clerk of the superior court and mail a copy of the will to the estate executor and beneficiaries named in the will.

The Importance of Obtaining an Original Will

If your mother or father wrote a will, it’s important to locate it and obtain an original copy to avoid intensive intestacy proceedings.

Whenever someone dies without a will, a California probate judge will follow a very specific legal formula to decide how their assets are distributed. This formula prioritizes close blood relations such as a surviving spouse and children.

However, intestacy proceedings do not account for a person’s preferences—if they wanted an account to go to charity or for a particular loved one to inherit an item of great sentimental value.

If your parent did not have a trust or other legal strategy to keep their assets out of probate, you will need their will to avoid their estate being classified as intestate.


Philip J. Kavesh
Nationally recognized attorney helping clients with customized estate planning guidance for over 40 years.