Do you or a loved one have a safety deposit box at a bank? Do you know someone who was the personal representative of a probate estate and had access to that safety deposit box?
Safety deposits are great to keep all of your social security cards, birth certificates, car titles, etc. safe from fires, thieves and storms. What would happen if you were to pass away? Would anyone have access to that safety deposit box? The bank needs to have a record of who you would want to have access to your safety deposit box.
In a recent Oklahoma case a daughter in 2005 entered into a rental agreement for a safety deposit box with a local bank. The daughter placed in the safety deposit box her deceased fathers large and valuable coin collection, along with a variety of jewelry and other family heirlooms. There was also a prescription bottled filled with coins. The bottle was labeled with a name of a relative. The daughter faithfully paid the rent on the safety deposit box every year in a timely matter. In 2008 the bank accidently expunged their records of the owneship of the safety deposit box from its computer system. A bank officer later conceded there were other records available to identify the owner, if it had searched. In 2009 the bank opened the safety deposit box to try and identify the owner. The only item in the safety deposit box that had a name was the prescription pill bottle. It just so happened that this relative was a former bank customer.
The bank then contacted the relative. He claimed the large and valuable coin collection. He had previously been the personal representative of the deceased father’s probate estate, but he had been discharged as the personal representative in late 2006, and did not have the authority to claim the property. The former personal representative produced the Letters of Administration appointing him as the probate estate’s personal representative in May 2006. The bank did not check the court records to verify if he still was appointed, nor require a certification by the court that the letters were still in full force and effect. In October 2009 the bank drafted and had the relative execute a hold harmless agreement as “personal representative” of the
estate (not in his individual capacity). The bank then delivered the contents of plaintiff’s safety deposit box to defendant. The relative then sold the contents for a pittance (he claimed). In court he later admitted he was not the personal representative of the probate estate. That he did not have approval to sell the property. That he did not contact the daughter and sole heir to disclose that he obtained the contents.
The daughter went to the bank the next year. The bank then told her that they had mistakenly released the contents. The bank then contacted the relative who stated that he had disposed of the box contents. The daughter sued the bank for conversion, gross negligence, fraud and emotional distress. A jury trial followed. The jury awarded the daughter $1,250,000.00 in actual damages and after a separate proceeding, $125,000.00 in punitive damages.
This is a very sad situation that the daughter had to go through. She lost all her personal treasures. She will never see them again. The lesson in this story is to make sure that you place identifying contact information in your safety deposit box. This way if your bank makes a similar mistaken, it can easily identify who the contents belong to.
Brent D. Coldiron is a probate attorney in Oklahoma City. He is also a revocable trust attorney in Oklahoma City. Sometimes called a living trust. He has over 39 years experience. An experienced probate, and living trust attorney like Brent D. Coldiron, knows what to do in these situations. His fees are reasonable. The best money ever spent is to get good legal advice before signing your name to something. He also knows how to protect assets from nursing home spend down. Contact Brent at his Oklahoma City number (405) 478-5655 or Midwest City number 737-2244. His website is Brent’s website.