Talking Law | Chris Jones

Many folks erroneously believe that the safest place to store valuable items is in a bank safe deposit box. This is because they think that banks have the best 24-hour security and alarm systems and are least likely to be subject to destruction by fire or other catastrophes.

But what they fail to take into account is that the contents of a safe deposit box are rarely insured, while items in one’s home are more often covered by homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policies.

Cash in a safe deposit box is not covered under a bank’s FDIC insurance. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation only insures the funds on deposit in accounts held by banks, not the contents stored in rented safe deposit boxes.

Finally, and from the perspective of the work I do, most important, it’s not a good idea to store original copies of documents that you require immediate access to, such as passports, spare keys, wills, trusts, advance health-care directives, powers of attorney, funerary directives, etc. in a safe deposit box.

Bank safe deposit boxes are only accessible during banking operating hours and the boxes are typically sealed when the bank receives a death notice. To open a sealed safe deposit box, estate representatives are required to provide court orders to the bank, which can take significant lengths of time to obtain. This can defeat the intended purpose of some of the documents kept there for safekeeping.

For these reasons it’s good idea to buy a fireproof safe for the home. What should be kept in it? Here are a dozen suggestions:

» Property insurance policies and agent contact information. This information will be needed right away if your home suffers damage and you need to know how to file a claim.

» Passports and original birth certificates. These are a hassle to replace and will come in handy to establish identity, especially when traveling with children. If you have pets, keep information about them, too.

» A list of family doctors, prescription medications and contact information for all pharmacies you use. This is useful to provide at your annual medical checkups to ensure up-to-date information is maintained; in case of an emergency, it is available for fast reference if EMTs or paramedics require it and, when traveling, always take a copy along with you.

» CDs or an external hard drive containing digital copies of all family photos. It’s a good idea to scan all older family photos and keep a digital copy of them as well. Your family memories in photographs are irreplaceable.

» Safe deposit box keys. If you store valuables in a bank safe deposit box, you’ll want to make sure you keep the keys to it in a safe place. If you have multiple safe deposit boxes, be sure to identify which key goes to what box — saving you the trouble of trying to figure that out later, when memory is fuzzier.

» Important papers related to life insurance policies, investments, retirement plans, bank accounts and associated contact information. Be sure to review these at least once a year and update them as needed.

» Information on your outstanding debts, due dates and contact information. It’s important to keep tabs on your finances and protect your credit, in the event you’re displaced by a fire.

» Original Social Security cards. These can take time to replace and may be needed to establish eligibility for benefits.

» Copies of your important legal documents, including powers of attorney, advance health-care directives, and health-care proxies — both for yourself and for anyone else for whom you are designated attorney-in-fact or health-care surrogate. Having access to these can help ensure the protection they were created to provide.

» Copies of wills, trusts and all estate plan documents in which you are designated the executor or trustee. It’s important to have access to these as safe deposit boxes are typically sealed upon notification of the box owner’s death. Notice that I’m suggesting copies and not originals! Because we are often tempted to notate on these documents as life circumstances change, I strongly suggest that the attorney who created them be the repository for the originals to prevent you from accidentally writing marginalia on them. If you need to alter their terms, contact the lawyer to do so.

» Valuables: Jewelry, coins, cash, etc. You may want to keep some cash on hand for ready access in an emergency.

» Spare keys and titles to all vehicles. It helps to know where copies are in the case that you need them.

Of course, exactly what you choose to store in your fireproof safe will depend on your personal circumstances and the size and location of the safe.

Chris Jones is an attorney at Rogers, Sheffield & Campbell LLP, a Santa Barbara law firm. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own. This article is not intended to provide legal advice. For legal advice on any of the information in this post, click here for the form or phone number on the Rogers, Sheffield & Campbell Contact Us page.