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Guide to Safety Deposit Boxes

By Alice Garbarini Hurley · July 20, 2022 · 7 minute read

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Guide to Safety Deposit Boxes

Even if you don’t have a safety deposit box, you are probably familiar with how they can be used to stash valuable papers and possessions out of reach, at a bank, for safekeeping. You’ve probably seen movies in which precious jewels or stock certificates are tucked away in these containers. In real life, they can provide a layer of security that many people find valuable.

But you may wonder, “Do I really need a safety deposit box?” Keep reading to learn:

•   What is a safe deposit box and what does it do?

•   What should and should not be kept in it?

•   What are the benefits and disadvantages of having a safety deposit box?

•   Should you ever share access to a safety deposit box with someone else?

What Is a Safety Deposit Box?

A safety deposit box (also known as a safe deposit box) is a secure locked box, usually made of metal, that’s used for storing important documents or irreplaceable items. A safety deposit box generally comes with two keys, one for you and one for the bank.

You can probably rent one of these boxes at a bricks-and-mortar branch of your bank or credit union. The boxes usually resemble drawers that slide out and are secured in an inner vault. They are designed to protect your valuables against theft, natural disasters, and even terrorism.

Rental fees typically vary by the box’s size and by the financial institution. Yearly costs can range from about $15 to $350. If you lose your key, you may have to pay $30 or more to replace it. You don’t necessarily need an account at a bank to keep a safety deposit box there, though some banks offer lower rental rates to customers who hold accounts there.

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What Is the Purpose of a Safety Deposit Box?

How do safety deposit boxes work and what might you need one for? If you have valuables you want to protect, these containers are, as the name suggests, a safe place to store them. Here are examples of the kinds of important items to store in the box:

•   Birth and death certificates

•   Marriage and divorce records

•   Citizenship papers

•   Property deeds and mortgage documents

•   Adoption paperwork

•   Military records, including discharge papers

•   Car titles

•   Savings bonds

•   Stock shares

•   Important data stored on USB drives

•   Heirloom jewelry, stamp and coin collections, or keepsakes.

The value of a safety deposit box is that banks and credit unions are generally more secure than your home, which could potentially be burglarized, flooded, or endure a fire. What’s more, putting your valuables in a safety deposit box also means you know exactly where they are and you don’t need to tear the house apart hunting for where you might have tucked them away.

When you need to access something, such as your birth certificate, you would go to the bank, prove your identity and ownership of the contents, present the key, and a staffer unlocks the box. You can usually sit in private to review the contents and remove items or add more.

How Safe Is a Safety Deposit Box?

In most cases, a bank is a safer location than a house or apartment, which could be broken into or could be compromised by, say, flood or fire. How a safe deposit box works is by being a damage-proof container in a solid building that has superior security.

However, some experts say safety deposit boxes could be safer, especially if a banking location changes ownership. Be aware if this happens during the course of your box rental. You may want to monitor your valuables by visiting the bank in person to be sure your box is properly registered under your name and address.

Beyond that, know that the bank does not insure the value of the contents in the box. See below for more details on that.

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What Should You Not Use a Safety Deposit Box For?

If you might need access to something quickly, don’t leave it in a safe deposit box. Banks and credit unions are usually not open seven days a week and might close for the day before you finish your work day. What happens if you get sick and need your health care proxy forms? Or what if you need to leave the country unexpectedly and realize you put your passport in your safety deposit box? Lack of access could create serious problems.

The following are items you might need access to ASAP, so do not store them away from home:

•   Living will

•   Health-care proxy papers

•   Passport

•   Any important document you have only one copy of and might need to produce, say, when traveling, proof of legal guardianship.

In addition, most banks and credit unions prohibit the storage of the these items in safety deposit boxes:

•   Firearms, other weapons, and ammunition

•   Explosives or hazardous materials

•   Illegal substances, such as drugs

•   Alcohol

•   Perishable items

•   Cremated remains.

Are Possessions Insured With a Safety Deposit Box?

Items held in a safety deposit box are not insured by the bank. If you have a costly heirloom diamond bracelet, for instance, contact your home insurance company and have the bracelet (and other treasures) specifically insured on your policy.

You might also want to make copies of and safely store any documents you put in your safety deposit box for reference purposes. For instance, you might need information from your birth certificate vs. the original document itself when filling out a form and not want to make a trip to the bank

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Benefits of a Safety Deposit Box

Safe deposit boxes can be an important way to protect your valuables. Here are some of the upsides of renting one:

Contents are protected against natural disasters and theft

If your home were flooded, had a fire, or another bit of “crazy weather” occurred, or a burglar broke in, your important papers and possessions would be safe.

Less chance of losing track of valuable items at home

When trying to stash away important documents, like the deed to a property, or a special item, like your grandmother’s engagement ring, there’s the risk that you’ll hide it so well at home, you’ll have trouble finding it again. This is simply not an issue when you store things in a safety deposit box.

More secure than a home safe

A safe deposit box is typically a better, more theft-proof bet than a home safe, which could be taken away or broken into during robbery.

Convenience and peace of mind

What if, in a worst-case scenario, you were to be incapacitated or die? A safety deposit box can be where family members would naturally look to find documents and items you want them to have.

Recommended: How much money do you need to open a bank account?

Disadvantages of a Safety Deposit Box

Now that you know the pros of having a safe deposit box, here are some cons to consider:

Only the owner has access to the contents

Part of what makes a safety deposit box so secure is the limited access. But there could be a number of scenarios in which you want someone else to have access. In this case, you might want someone else close to you to have official access. Or it can be wise to tell a trusted relative, friend, or the attorney managing your estate where the key is kept in case of emergency.

Limited hours

If you need to get something from a safety deposit box, you must do so within the bank or credit union’s business hours, which may not align with your schedule perfectly.

Lost key

If you lose the key to your safe deposit box, you will have to expend effort to get a new one and pay for it as well.

Limited size

Safety deposit boxes are typically the size of a small desk drawer. If you have a considerable number of items you want to store securely, these containers may not be big enough. You might rent a larger one at a higher fee.

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Can Safety Deposit Boxes Be Jointly Shared?

Safe deposit boxes can be jointly shared, just as you can open a joint bank account with someone. In both of these cases, it’s key that the person you share ownership with is trustworthy and reliable. It should likely be a relative or someone you have known for a long time. Both of you ought to be on the same page about why the contents are in the box; when or if they should be removed; and which people are entitled to them.

Alternatives to Safety Deposit Boxes

If you are looking for an option to a safe deposit box, here are a few other ways to store important, valuable items:

Personal home safes

Fire-rated home safes are available from many retailers (Amazon, L.L.Bean) as well as office supply stores, like Staples. They are available with keypads or keys for access. While these add a layer of security, there is the chance that a thief would try to get away with the whole safe or find a way to break into them.

Private safe deposit box companies

These are not banks or credit unions but private companies that rent secure spaces. They may be an expensive option. A small storage box can cost $400 a year or more. To find one of these businesses, search online.

Banking With SoFi

For stashing vital papers or valuable possessions safely, a safe deposit box at a bricks-and-mortar bank or credit union can be a wise move. This secure container can safeguard items that could otherwise be stolen, damaged by a flood or fire, or be lost.

When it’s time to stash your money securely, however, take a look at SoFi. When you open an online bank account with direct deposit, you’ll earn a competitive APY and pay zero account fees. That means your money could grow that much faster. And, since we’re an online bank, we’re open 24/7 for your convenience.

Better banking is here with up to 3.25% APY on SoFi Checking and Savings.

FAQ

How much do safety deposit boxes cost?

The fee to rent a safety deposit box generally ranges from $15 to $350, depending on size and the financial institution.

What can I use instead of a safety deposit box?

For alternatives to a safety deposit box, consider a fire-rated personal home safe (which may not be as secure as storing items at a bank) or a space rented at a private vault company, which may cost more than working with a bank or credit union.

Are safety deposit boxes anonymous?

Safety deposit boxes are not fully anonymous. You need an ID or Social Security Number to open one, so they could be tracked to your name.


Photo credit: iStock/AlexSecret

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