A safe deposit box – incorrectly called a safety deposit box – held in a bank’s vault seems to be a pretty safe bet. But consider these questions:
- Is the service free?
- If not, what does the bank charge you?
- Do they have your correct name and address on file?
- Are the contents of your box adequately insured? Safe-deposit box contents have been destroyed by fire and flood, and have also been stolen.
- Do you have an inventory of what your box contains?
- Has anyone else had access to your box?
- What happens to the contents of your box if you have not been to the bank in years?
- What would happen if you were to die suddenly, or to die intestate (without a will)?
- Do you know the Abandonment Laws in your state?
- When financial chaos looms, who are the first to lock their doors? (the banks!)
Unclaimed Property laws in the U.S. provide for half-yearly reporting periods at which unclaimed safe deposit box contents, in addition to other forms of personal property, are reported to the state’s Unclaimed Property Office. The items are then ‘noticed’ in a local newspaper, and finally the property is turned over to the state for safe-keeping until the rightful owner or heir makes a claim. At least, this is how it is meant to work, and the 50 U.S. states are currently holding more than $35 billion-worth of unclaimed property that they are mandated to safeguard until the rightful owner or heir is identified.
But in 2008, a Good Morning America investigation revealed that some states aggressively seize property that remains unclaimed, and then they use the money to balance their budgets, even though state Unclaimed Property Offices are required to hold auction proceeds indefinitely in case the original owners or their heirs ever step forward. Statistically, states return less than a quarter of unclaimed property to the rightful owners.
Many states only require a bank to notify the owner of a safe deposit box by mail, when the box is considered abandoned (Anthem Vault uses mail and e-mail if an account holder cannot be located).
A state’s Unclaimed Property Vault – used to store non-monetary items of value such as jewelry, coins, and bullion – inevitably reaches capacity every few years. When the vault is full, the State Treasurer may decide to host an auction, and the proceeds generated from the sale of items are then recorded in the name of the safe deposit box owner. If the owner or heir is identified and verified, he/she may then be able to receive the entire proceeds from the sale of the items.
PROCEDURES VARY BY STATE
Abandonment laws in many states have a much shorter required holding period for safe deposit boxes than Anthem Vault’s seven-year period. For example, the State of Georgia considers property in a safe deposit box to be abandoned only two years after the lock has been drilled out by the bank and the contents seized and turned over to the state’s Unclaimed Property Office. California has been severely criticized for the way it handles unclaimed property, and unclaimed property in Delaware is the third largest source of state revenue. All 50 states pay private contractors commissions to locate and seize accounts for them. Think about that. Do they pay contractors just so they can give the assets back to the rightful owners and heirs?
Furthermore, there is the principle of escheat, a common law which transfers to the state or federal government the property of a person who dies without an heir, even though modern U.S. law places a heavy emphasis on finding a viable successor to assume ownership, before escheating the property to the state or the fed as the last resort. For the laws in your own state, do an internet search for ‘State of …….. unclaimed property”.
BE AS SAFE AS YOU CAN BE
Whether you have a lumpy mattress, a wall safe behind a painting or a safe deposit box in a bank, it pays to think carefully about how well your wealth is truly secured and safeguarded. Does anything compare to a non-governmental vault, completely outside the banking system?