Methods to Gain Access to a Safety Deposit Box After a Person Dies in Tennessee

Posted on Jan 13 2018 4:41PM by Attorney, Jason A. Lee

A frequent question that is raised following someone death is how someone can get access to their safety deposit box post death in Tennessee.  This includes questions about who is entitled to this access the box in this circumstance.  This issues usually comes to a head when family members are trying to locate a will that cannot be found or to determine if there are any valuables in the box.  The Tennessee legislature adopted a statute to address this specific situation.


T.C.A. § 45-2-905 is the statute that addresses access to a safety deposit box after someone’s death but it has several other provisions related to safety deposit boxes that I will not address here.  The key portion for our purpose is found in subsection (c) as follows:


(c) Upon the death of the sole or last surviving lessee of a safe deposit box, access is authorized as follows:

(1) The duly qualified executor or administrator of the lessee may have access to and remove contents from the safe deposit box, without inventory unless an inventory is required by the lessor or by court order;

(2) In order to search for and remove any written instrument purporting to be the lessee's last will and testament, or any writing relating to a burial plot or burial instructions, or any writing purporting to be an insurance policy on the life of the lessee, a lessor shall permit a person named in a court order for that purpose, or if no order has been served upon the lessor, the lessee's spouse, parent, adult sibling or adult descendant, or a person named as executor in a copy of the lessee's purported will provided to the lessor, or any person with a right of access to the safe deposit box immediately prior to the death of the lessee, to open the safe deposit box with an officer or employee of the lessor and remove the documents. A record of items removed from the box by the person authorized entry shall be made by the lessor and the other person. If a purported will is found that does not name as executor the person conducting the will search with the lessor's representative, the lessor may make a copy thereof and mail or deliver it to the executor named therein, or to the court having jurisdiction of the decedent's estate according to the decedent's domicile as declared in the instrument; and

(3) If an executor or administrator of the lessee's estate has not requested access to the contents within sixty (60) days following the lessee's death, the lessor may then permit access by the surviving spouse or any next-of-kin of the lessee for the purposes of inventory and the removal of contents. Prior to removal, an officer or employee of the lessor and the surviving spouse or next-of-kin of the lessee shall inventory the contents of the box and prepare a record thereof to be retained by the lessor.


Under this statute there are therefore several different ways to get access to the safety deposit box under Tennessee law.  I will address each in turn.


Number One – Under subsection (c)(1) a “duly qualified” executor or administrator of an estate can gain access to the safety deposit box.   This is done by a formal estate probate case opening and the appointment of the personal representative of the estate. This person is authorized to remove contents from the box.  This is helpful, but only if the executor or administrator are already qualified by a probate court.  This can take quite some time after death.  As a result, if the original will cannot be found, then this part of the statute does not help with locating the Will.


Number Two - Subsection (c)(2) provides that a person who has a court order can have access to the safety deposit box so they can search for the will, burial instructions or life insurance policies.  This would require the filing of a petition with a Tennessee court to get access to the safety deposit box.


Number Three – Subsection (c)(2) also provides that if there is no order of court, then the following individuals can get access for the limited purpose of searching for a will, burial instructions or life insurance policies:

            (1) Spouse of decedent.

            (2) Parent of decedent.

            (3) Adult sibling of decedent.

            (4) Adult descendant of decedent.

            (5) Person named as executor in purported will.

            (6) Any person who had access to safety deposit box immediately prior to death.


These individuals can get access to the box but only with bank personnel present.  Both the bank personnel and the individual who gets access to the box must record a written inventory of all items found in the safety deposit box.


Number Four – Subsection (c)(3) provides that if 60 days passes after death and no executor or administrator has requested access to the safety deposit box, then the surviving spouse or any next of kin can get access to do an inventory and remove the contents.  This part of the statute provides that a bank “may” permit this access so it is optional.  Some banks may require these individuals to get an order of the court before allowing this access.  Likely, that is the best thing for a bank to do in this situation.


If you have any questions or difficulty obtaining access to a safety deposit box in Tennessee, T.C.A. § 45-2-905 is the statute to consult with to determine how to move forward.  In many circumstances, you will need to hire an attorney to assist you to gain access.


Follow me on Twitter at @jasonalee for updates from the Tennessee Wills and Estates blog.

TAGS: Executor/Executrix, Probate Assets, Tennessee Probate Law
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Jason A. Lee is a Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC. Contact Jason at 615-540-1004 or jlee@burrowlee.com for an initial consultation on wills estate planning and probate issues.

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Tennessee Wills and Estates Blog
Jason A. Lee, Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC
611 Commerce Street, Suite 2603
Nashville, TN 37203
Phone: 615-540-1004
E-mail: jlee@burrowlee.com