How to access the safety deposit box located in New York of a deceased foreign person

Here’s a common scenario most face when they know of a deceased person who used to live in New York, moved out of the country, but still had a safety deposit box in the state:

The deceased died in Ecuador. Years later, the family receive a letter from Chase Bank about the decedent’s two safety deposit boxes. The letter says that if the boxes are not claimed by a certain date, the bank will auction off the items and deposit the proceeds with NYS Unclaimed Funds. This is a real case that our New York probate law firm had last year. The items were held in safety deposit boxes for over 30 years. Chase finally woke up and contacted the decedent’s family living in Ecuador. Understandably, this letter left the family in a panicked state not knowing how to proceed to claim the safety deposit boxes. 

There is no way to call the bank and ask what’s inside the box. They won’t tell you. If an owner of a safety deposit box has died, a bank representative will tell you that in order for you to search the box they need a court order from the New York Surrogate’s Court.

The only way to get this court order is by filing a proceeding to search a safety deposit box in the county where the bank is located. If the box is located in Chase Bank on Park Avenue in Manhattan, then the court proceeding must be filed in New York County Surrogate’s Court. If the box is in Chase Bank in Brooklyn, the proper court is Kings County Surrogate’s Court. The court will need the address of the bank before they issue a court order so this detail must be known and disclosed in the filing.

What if all the family members reside outside of the US? Can one person fly into New York, get the court order and go search the box?  Short answer: no.

To start, the person petitioning the court must be the closest living relative to the deceased. For example, if the decedent is survived by a parent and siblings, the parent can petition as the next living heir, not the siblings. What if the decedent is survived only by a first cousin? This is where things can get very complicated. In this case, a court will likely order a kinship hearing for the cousin to prove that he is in fact the closest living relative.  If the person has trouble proving it, or doesn’t want to go through with this lengthy proceeding, the heir can ask the Surrogate’s Court to appoint a public administrator to search the box. However, the public administrator may not make it in time if there is a strict time frame to claim the box. The public administrator offices in the five boroughs – Bronx, Queens, Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Manhattan – are extremely busy and backlogged– it can take several months for them to get to a new matter.

Who can petition the New York Surrogate’s Court to search the box?

The person that files the petition and the person that actually searches the safety deposit box do not have to be the same. The petitioner can name an agent in her court papers to search the box for her. For example, Anna’s brother died in New York. She is his only living heir. Anna makes a petition to search the box and lists her NY estate lawyer as her agent. This way, Anna does not need to come all the way from Ireland to do the search.

If you are the closest living relative and live outside the US, then the best and most cost effective situation is to appoint an agent to search the box for you. You don’t need to fly into New York. The agent you designate in court papers will go to the bank for you, search the box, and take photos of any valuables. Many times, our law firm is designated as the agent to search a safety deposit box for foreign heirs or beneficiaries. We make an inventory of the box contents, send photos and videos to the parties, and then a beneficiary decides whether they want to open an estate in New York to retrieve the assets.

Here’s a summary of who can petition Surrogate’s court to search the safety deposit box:

In the above-mentioned case with the Ecuadorian decedent, one of our lawyers was designated as the agent to search the boxes held with Chase.  It turned out the content of the boxes contained a collection of very expensive and rare jewelry pieces, valued at over 6 million dollars.

Lastly, understand that you cannot take home anything from the box during this search, unless it’s will, a burial plot, or an insurance policy. To retrieve anything else from the box such as jewelry, coins, certificates – an estate must be opened in New York, which is a brand new and separate proceeding.

The same rules apply to searching the residence of a decedent. For example, Jason is a French citizen who is living in New York City under a work visa. Jason dies unexpectedly, survived by his parents as his only heirs. His parents are elderly and reside in France. Before they decide to open an estate in New York for Jason, the parents need to know whether Jason had a will, and what his NY assets are. What are their options? The only option here is to search Jason’s residence for a will and for financial statements to understand what his assets are. We recently had a case where the parents appointed us as the agent to search their daughter’s apartment. The search revealed a lot of information – a marriage and divorce that they never knew about; stock accounts, and holdings in real estate in other states. A will was not found. With this information, they proceeded to open an estate in New York.

At Mishiyeva law, we have experience accessing safety deposit boxes that belong to a foreign decedent or when the beneficiaries are foreign citizens. Call us today to discuss your matter at 646-233-0826.