On April 21, 1986, Geraldo Rivera hosted a live television show called The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults. Well before reality television became the standard, the two-hour special was hyped so much that 30 million viewers tuned in to watch as he dramatically opened Capone’s vault. As we all know, Rivera opened the vault to find…drumroll please…dirt and several empty bottles.
As a probate attorney, I am at bank’s constantly opening a recently deceased’s safe deposit box. There is often great drama surrounding the opening of these boxes. Each time I open one, I am reminded of Geraldo Rivera’s opening of Al Capone’s Vault.
What makes the process so dramatic is the fact that so few know what has been left behind in a safe deposit box. There is much less drama with other assets. Most family members are aware of any real estate holdings and generally have a sense of accumulated assets. However, very few know what is contained within these hidden boxes.
Why? Most safe deposit boxes are accessed infrequently and generally only by one individual.
I believe that the dramatic openings of safe deposit boxes may become a thing of the past. Historically, safe deposit boxes were a great selling point for banks. Banks touted safe deposit boxes as a sensible place to keep insurance policies, family records, deeds, titles, and coins. In the past, fireboxes and safes were costly. Not anymore. You can find inexpensive safes and fireboxes for about $40 at Walmart, Target, and the big box stores. For less than the cost of storing your important items in a safe deposit box for an entire year, you can own a firebox or safe and keep it in the comforts of your home.
Also, many people seem to the lack the patience to use safe deposit boxes. Banks are slow and busy. Getting in and out of a box can be a time consuming event. Unless you enjoy spending a ton of time at your local bank, a safe or firebox is usually just as safe and much more accessible. Recently, The New York Times wrote an interesting article about the rise in the sale of home safes and the frustrations with using a safe deposit box.
I find it interesting that many of my clients have never mastered the correct name of these boxes, incorrectly referring to them as safety deposit boxes, slurring the safe-de-posit together to create new word.
Adding to the drama of an opening is the fact that there are two keys to every safe deposit box. One key is kept by the owner and the other by the bank. Both are inserted in the safe deposit box before the box will slide out. If the key can’t be found by the family after the death, a locksmith must meet you at the bank to drill out the lock. There is a ton of drama watching a locksmith use various drill bits to decimate a lock.
Most times, the family is huddled together as I slowly open the long and thin box.
There are months that go by when all that is contained in these boxes are loose slips of paper, decades’ old title to vehicles, and a few loose coins.
A few month ago, the family jumped up and down in the small viewing room as if the slot machine showed three cherries. Thousands of bills stacked so tight that I had to pry them out.
This past week, another box contained tens of thousands of dollars of savings bonds dating back to the mid-1970s.
Yesterday, a grieving daughter did a little dance in the middle of the bank’s vault when the safe deposit box revealed significant assets. If only Geraldo Rivera was there to see it.