The NY Times recently published an article stating Safe Deposit Boxes Aren’t Safe. I was a little disappointed in the article because it was a bit sensational, but I suppose the takeaway is important for folks that made other assumptions. A more accurate headline would be “Safe Deposit Box Contents Aren’t Insured”.

No federal laws require banks to compensate customers for lost property from a safe deposit box. Usually, you have agreed in the rental contract that that maximum liability is on the order of $1,000. Unfortunately, there have been rare cases where folks have lost the contents of your safe deposit box. Natural disasters like fire, flood, or even a movie-style bank robbery have occurred. The NYT article told the story of a man who stored $10 million of rare watches in a safe deposit box and lost them when the bank mistakenly emptied it because it thought the owner stopped paying the rental fees.

If you think about it, why would a bank agree to charge you maybe $100 a year in rental fees, but be responsible for $10 million of property? What if it was $100 million? That doesn’t sound like a good business model. How do they know what you put in there? You could put in a silver Casio and say it was a Patek Philippe. This is the domain of insurance and personal articles policies. Your homeowner’s policy may offer limited coverage on safe deposit box contents, but you can bet they won’t cover $10 million without asking a lot more questions.

Despite this lack of insurance, having access to a small box inside a bank’s vault for $30 a year can still be a great deal. Why not just store copies of valuable documents and photos? The odds of losing the contents are still quite low. Although they have little monetary value on the open market, these items are still quite valuable to me:

  • Copies of identity documents (birth certificates, marriage licenses, Social Security cards, passports)
  • Copies of real estate deeds and auto titles
  • Copies of paper savings bonds
  • Copies of mortgage and other loan documents
  • Copies of insurance policies
  • Copies of your home inventory (paper and digital)
  • Additional digital scans of above?
  • Copies of personal photos on flash drive

The idea is that the important contents of my house are consumed in a fire, I can still rebuild my life. Sometimes things get lost, and most recovery procedures work much more smoothly with a copy of the original. I like having physical documents because flash drives can fail as well.

Some people might argue to keep the original in the safe deposit box and the copies at home. That is certainly debatable. You might even keep some originals in one and the rest in the other. However, I would first make sure you have copies of all important documents in two different, secure locations.

Bottom line. The stuff in your safe deposit box isn’t insured against loss by your bank. If something has a high market value, make sure you insure it independently. Safe deposit box can still be useful for keeping copies of important documents.

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Safe Deposit Boxes: A Perfect Place to Store Copies Of Important Documents from My Money Blog.

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