With digital records and cloud storage becoming the norm, the bricks-and-mortar safe deposit box might seem ready to join our growing list of things that will soon disappear forever.
But don’t rush to declare the safe deposit box a relic of the past just yet. There can still be times when you’ll need to be able to produce certain original documents (including ones that have a raised seal) rather than digital scans or photocopies, and some valuables simply can’t be digitized.
Installing a safe in your home is one alternative to a safe deposit box, but they aren’t foolproof, says Luke Reynolds, chief of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation's Outreach & Program Development Section. Home safes are more susceptible to fire and water damage, not to mention theft, than bank safe deposit boxes, Reynolds says.
On the other hand, access to your safe deposit box can be limited, more so during emergencies. For example, the coronavirus pandemic reduced operating hours for some bank branches, and limited access or required appointments for in-branch services, such as access to safe deposit boxes. Moves like that complicate your ability to retrieve important documents or items when you need them.
Our best advice: Use a safe deposit box and a home safe. Hard-to-replace items that you might need frequently or in a hurry, such as your passport, are best kept in the home safe, while other important items you rarely need stay in the safe deposit box. Here are 11 of the best things to keep in a safe deposit box at your bank, updated for 2021. This guidance should also help you determine the size of the safe deposit box you wish to rent (important legal documents may take up a lot of room).
Social Security card
Having your Social Security number fall into the hands of an identity thief can be the start of years of headaches as you are forced to file disputes, freeze accounts and monitor credit reports for signs of financial fraud. It’s why we rank the Social Security card among the worst things to keep in your wallet in case it’s ever lost or stolen.
Stow your Social Security card in your safe deposit box. On the rare occasions when you actually might need to produce it, say, for a real estate closing, you can plan to retrieve the card. Then immediately return it to the bank vault. Meantime, memorize the number, if you haven’t already, for filling out routine paperwork.
Birth, marriage, divorce and death certificates
Vital records that are rarely needed but a hassle to replace are prime candidates for your safe deposit box. We're talking birth certificates, death certificates, marriage certificates and divorce certificates. The same goes for adoption-related documents; in particular, birth certificates from an overseas adoption are extremely difficult to replace if lost or destroyed.
Government agencies typically can issue certified copies of vital records, but it’ll cost you time, money and a lot of frustration. You’ll also need to provide proof that you are entitled to copies. Virginia, for example, charges $12 per certified record (versus $25 in California and $53 in New York), and it can take weeks to receive the document by mail. Expedited delivery through a third-party service called VitalChek takes just 7-10 days, but the charge is $32.75 per certified record, including service fee; add on the cost of what the state charges you as well as shipping fees. Express delivery, which costs more, typically arrives within 3-5 business days (records are shipped directly from government offices). VitalChek says it works with every state plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.
Paper stock and bond certificates
Bookkeeping for stock and bond ownership and transactions is handled electronically these days, but there was a time in the not-too-long-ago when actual paper certificates were issued to investors. The New York Stock Exchange eliminated its requirement for physical certificates in 2001, and paper savings bonds haven’t been available from banks since 2011. In a twist, however, you can use your federal tax refund to purchase paper Series I U.S. Savings Bonds directly from the U.S. Treasury in $50 increments. Include IRS Form 8888 with your tax return to request the paper savings bonds.
Some paper certificates, many of which are intricately engraved, and sometimes, works of art, are still floating around. If you have any of your own or receive any as an inheritance, secure them in your safe deposit box until you can determine the actual value. This is especially true if you don’t recognize the name of the corporation on the certificate. The security could be worth more than you think if the stock later split or the original corporation merged with a bigger company. The Securities and Exchange Commission recommends contacting the transfer agent listed on the certificate for information. You can also try your broker or the relevant state agency that handles incorporations. Finally, even if you discover that the certificate has no investment value, it might be worth something as a collectible. Check Scripophily.com.
Sentimental value counts as well when deciding which personal papers to stash in your safe deposit box. Items like diaries from your youth, cherished letters from friends and family members, or the unpublished memoir of a long-dead relative can benefit from the protection of a safe deposit box. Yes, these personal papers can (and should) be scanned as a backup, but there’s no replacing the connection that comes with holding in your own hands something meaningful from your past.
Experts recommend using a safe deposit box for difficult-to-replace or irreplaceable documents.
It’s likely most of your recent photos are snug in the cloud, so your latest selfie is safe even if you lose your smartphone. But what about those precious old photos of, say, childhood vacations or relatives long gone? Much like personal papers, you’d be wise to store family photos with sentimental value in your safe deposit box, along with any negatives you may possess.
Don’t stop there. Scan the photos, copy the files onto a thumb drive, and store that drive in your safe deposit box, too. Another backup option: Upload the digital copies to the cloud-storage solution of your choice. One of the membership benefits of Amazon (AMZN) Prime, for instance, is unlimited digital photo storage. If you own an Apple (AAPL) device, you get 5 gigabytes of iCloud storage for free, with the option to purchase additional space.
How often do you really look at that stamp collection your grandfather gave you as a child? Or the rare coins you collected in high school? Or how about your dad’s baseball cards including a signed Mickey Mantle? Probably infrequently.
Collectibles like these that are valuable and hard to replace are strong candidates for storage in a safe deposit box – but only if they’re insured. Remember: Neither your bank nor the FDIC insures your stored possessions, and the off-premises coverage provided by your homeowners insurance typically has very low limits for collectibles. One option? Contact your insurer to see if the coverage limits of your current policy can be raised.
Let’s say it again: Your bank and the FDIC still aren't insuring the contents of your safe deposit box. And as with collectibles, the standard coverage offered by your homeowners policy for jewelry stored in a safe deposit box will be modest at best. Insurance experts recommend adding a personal articles floater to your insurance portfolio. This supplemental policy provides added coverage for specified valuables. You’ll likely need to get written appraisals of the value of each piece of jewelry for insurance purposes.
Jewelry you wear regularly doesn’t belong in a safe deposit box, which can only be accessed during a bank’s normal business hours. Keep everyday jewelry in a secure place at home such as a safe. But the pricey heirloom jewelry that perhaps you inherited but rarely wear should stay in your safe deposit box until a special occasion arises and you can pick it up, wear it for the big event, and put it back safely.
Insurance home inventory
Speaking of insurance, it’s a smart move to keep an inventory of all the belongings in your home safely tucked away in your safe deposit box. Should disaster ever strike, the home inventory will be invaluable when it comes to filing insurance claims. And, of course, a home inventory kept at home won’t do you much good if the house burns down or gets flattened by a tornado.
Another tip: Supplement your written inventory with visuals – the more detail the better. Include photos and videos. As the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”
If you ever bought real estate, you’re familiar with the piles of paperwork that accompany the transaction. In general, it’s a good idea to keep these documents as long as you own the property and even beyond when you sell, though in truth you might never need any of them. But in the event you ever do, having the peace of mind that many years later you can track down a needed document in your safe deposit box is worth it.
Settlement documents including the closing statement detail how much you paid for the property. Some of these costs are deductible on your tax return, and proof of the purchase price is essential when you sell and need to calculate taxes on your profit. The original property survey can come in handy if a dispute ever arises with a neighbor over property lines. The deed showing property ownership is typically recorded by your local government and made available as a public record. If you can’t find a needed document related to a home purchase, try contacting your agent or the title company that handled the closing.
A vehicle title is rarely needed and a pain to replace; in other words, it’s a document that’s perfectly suited to be stored in your safe deposit box. The only time you’re likely to retrieve it is when you’re ready to sell the vehicle and literally sign over the title to the buyer. The only other time is if you decide to take out a short-term title loan, though in our opinion there are better ways to get extra cash than putting your car up as collateral.
If you lose your car title you will have to visit your state’s department of motor vehicles (and that might require an appointment). There will be paperwork, a fee and perhaps a long wait time for your number to be called. If there are no liens and no changes to the title, you might be able to order a replacement copy online.
Plans for your digital assets
Without a password-generating service, you can’t possibly remember all the passwords for all of the online accounts we browse. We all have our workarounds: the ability to use your fingerprint to unlock online accounts, or lists sitting in our phone or tucked in our wallets. What about when others truly need to access your accounts in case something happens to you? And why is this important?
If your heirs don’t have access to your online accounts, they can’t manage them or even simply take them down, including your social media accounts, which could still get pinged by others who don’t know you’re gone.
"Create a list compiling all of your online accounts with usernames and passwords and keep this in your safe deposit box,” says Josh Monroe, a wealth planner at Brightworth in Atlanta. “Types of accounts to include are social media, online storage, financial accounts, frequent flier/miles programs, and email. By consolidating this list, you can help your heirs more quickly locate and access your online accounts.”
It will help ease the pain and confusion for your heirs.
"Documenting your wishes for your online assets is important so that your heirs aren’t left making decisions on your behalf or missing assets completely because they are unknown,” says Monroe. “Check with your financial planner or estate planning attorney to see what is required in your state to include your digital assets in your estate plan.”
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