Opened safe deposit box | Westend61/Getty Images

Westend61/Getty Images

Renting a safe-deposit box can help secure important personal documents, collectibles and family heirlooms. But it’s important to make wise decisions about:

  • What items really belong in a safety-deposit box.
  • What happens if those items are lost or damaged.
  • Who has access to the box.
  • What happens to the contents should something happen to you.

If you want to be savvy with your safe-deposit box, here’s what you should know.

What should — and shouldn’t — go in my safe-deposit box?

A safe-deposit box isn’t a good place to store everything important to you.

A safe-deposit box is a good place to store anything valuable that you don’t need access to regularly or wouldn’t need suddenly in an emergency.

You have access to your items only when the bank is open. That could mean Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with no weekend or holiday access. (If your bank has such limited hours, let Bankrate help you find a better bank today.)

In any case, you should not store items you might need on short notice or in an emergency, says Lawrence Lehmann, partner in the law firm Lehmann Norman & Marcus in New Orleans, and president of the National Association of Estate Planners & Councils.

That list includes passports, medical directives or durable powers of attorney, health care proxies and revocable living wills.

If you rent the box by yourself, don’t store your will, trust documents or anything else your heirs might need, says Christopher Cole, executive vice president and senior regulatory counsel with the Independent Community Bankers of America.

That being said, a safe-deposit box is a good place to store anything valuable that you don’t need access to regularly or wouldn’t need suddenly in an emergency.

Here are good things to put in a safe-deposit box:

  • Personal papers.
  • Stamp or coin collections.
  • Jewelry or rare collectibles.
  • Important contracts and business papers.

Are my belongings insured like my bank account?

A safe-deposit box lives within the vault of a federally insured bank or credit union. But whatever you put inside that box is not insured by the institution or the government. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., for example, protects only the money in your bank accounts.

That’s one of the “biggest misunderstandings” for consumers, says David McGuinn, president of Safe Deposit Specialists, a consulting and training firm that has schooled more than 250,000 financial service employees in safe-deposit box security and procedures.

If you want insurance on the items within the box, you have to purchase it yourself. Why might you consider this? Just as with your home, thefts, fires, floods, and other disasters can wreak havoc on bank vaults, too.

After the World Trade Center attacks, 1,300 safe deposit boxes were collateral damage, McGuinn says. After Katrina, “250 vaults in New Orleans were under water,” he says.

“No one can give you a 100% guarantee that nothing’s going to happen,” says McGuinn. “We can’t do that.”

Storing items of value? One common solution: Add a special policy to your home or contents insurance policy to specifically cover those valuable items. Whether it’s your diamond tiara or that collection of rare magazines, your home insurance agent can write a separate policy, called a rider, to cover specific, valuable items.

And insurers will often give you a discount for storing those pricy items in a safe-deposit box, McGuinn says.

A 2nd option: There are also companies that specialize in policies for safe-deposit box contents, he says.

Other ways to protect your belongings: If you’re storing items that could be damaged by water — like photos, papers, or a stamp collection — seal them in water-safe, zippered plastic bags and seal those inside Tupperware or similar containers, Lehmann says.

For things like family photos or personal papers, make copies and store them electronically. And leave instructions on how your family can access them — in case you’re not there to walk them through the process.

Who should have access to my safe-deposit box?

You can open a box for yourself alone, with one other person, or with several other people, McGuinn says. And some institutions will accommodate as many co-lessors as you’d like.

If you select co-lessors for your box, those people will have access and rights to the contents that are equal to yours, McGuinn says.

So someone with addictions, money problems, marriage problems or judgment issues isn’t a good candidate for box access, says Ric Edelman, chairman and CEO of Edelman Financial Services in Fairfax, Virginia, and author of “The Truth About Money.”

Some institutions will allow you to set up access so that both (or all) lessors have to be present to open it. But that’s not savvy or practical, McGuinn says.

Experts say it’s wise to have a designated power of attorney to handle your financial affairs — including access to your box — in case you are unable to because you are disabled or traveling, among other reasons.

One smart move: Keep a running inventory of your safe deposit box — and revise it every time you put something in or take something out, says Bill Kirchick, partner with the Boston law firm Nutter McClennen & Fish, and board member of the National Association of Estate Planners & Councils.

“Give that to your attorney, your spouse, your children — whoever has access,” he says.

And, especially if you rent a box solo, make sure that your family or heirs know where that box is, and where to find the inventory and box key.

What happens if I die?

With several names on the safe deposit box account, the box should remain available, McGuinn says.

But the deceased person’s executor might demand access to the box, and those situations can get “sticky,” he says.

In the old days, banks would often freeze access to safe deposit boxes on the death of one of the renters, pending instructions from a court, he says. That’s rare now.

Since that can have a big impact on what papers you choose to store, McGuinn recommends you ask the institution before you rent: What happens if one of the parties on the safe deposit box lease dies?

If institution personnel don’t know or seem unsure, ask your own attorney or contact a local estate attorney, he says.

If you alone rent the box, the box will be sealed when you die, and it could be weeks or months before it’s opened.

“Which means your attorney cannot gain access to that box to manage your estate,” Edelman says.

An executor or executrix that you designated to handle your estate after you die would eventually get access to your safe-deposit box, but how quickly depends on the state you live in and the bank.

But how would a bank even know you’re gone? Even if no one says anything directly, some institutions routinely scan obits, Edelman says.

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