GRB Law. Goehring Rutter & Boehm. Straightforward Thinking.

Her deceased mother's will is stored in a safe deposit box with PNC. The bank refuses to open it.

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Rebecca Johns did a lot for her 91-year-old mother Nila Beaver. She drove her mom to doctor’s appointments. She shopped for groceries and she had power of attorney to handle her mother’s bills.

Like many people, Ms. Beaver had rented a safe deposit box to store important items, including her last will and testament. Prior to her death Aug. 7, Ms. Beaver periodically reminded her daughter that the will was tucked in a safe deposit box at a PNC Bank branch in Greenville, Mercer County.

“You expect when you put your important papers in a safe deposit box that you will be able to access them when you need to,” said Ms. Johns, 63. “That is the reason you get a safe deposit box.”

But when her mother died, PNC Bank representatives declined to open the safe deposit box, setting up a conflict between the bank and Ms. Johns that raises questions of how such storage boxes work under the intricacies of estate law.

Ms. Johns has filed a lawsuit against the bank in the Court of Common Pleas of Mercer County, Pennsylvania Orphans’ Court Division, asking a judge to force PNC Bank to allow her access to her mother’s will. The case is scheduled for a hearing on Nov. 28.

PNC Bank spokesman Jason Beyersdorfer said the financial institution could not comment on any client’s situation due to confidentiality concerns.

In this case, Ms. Johns said she showed bank employees a copy of her mom’s will, which named her as the estate executor; a death certificate and a power of attorney.

The bank declined to give her access to the safe or to allow a bank representative to go into the safe deposit box for the sole purpose of retrieving the original copy of the will, according to Ms. Johns and her attorney, Jason Dibble, a Mercer County lawyer at Wallace and Dibble law firm. 

PNC Bank’s legal department is requiring Ms. Johns to be appointed by the court as the personal representative of her mother’s estate before allowing her access, the lawsuit claims.

But, under Pennsylvania law, a person cannot be appointed by a court as the personal representative of an estate without having first obtained and presented a decedent’s original last will and testament to a court for probate.

“To require a court order when it is not required by the law is not only inconvenient, but costly,” Mr. Dibble said. “And most people will not be able to afford to hire a lawyer to obtain a court order that they should not have needed in the first place.”

Looking at state rules

Pennsylvania law permits the next of kin to enter a safe deposit box after the death of a loved one for the limited purpose of withdrawing the original will or a cemetery deed.

State law also allows a bank employee to retrieve the original last will and testament from a safe deposit box to allow a person to be appointed by the court as the estate’s personal representative, according to several lawyers contacted for this report.

The law is intended to facilitate that person’s appointment as a personal representative of the estate, which will then allow the personal representative to conduct a full safe deposit box  inventory. Before contents are removed from the safe, the contents must be inventoried. 

The inventory of the contents must be filed with the Register of Wills or the state Department of Revenue, and the contents ‘ value must be shown on the Pennsylvania Inheritance Tax Return that will be filed in the decedent’s estate.

Lawyers with years of experience handling estate cases say the Mercer County predicament rarely occurs in Pennsylvania. In fact, none of those contacted said they have ever dealt with a case like it.

“I am astonished something like this could go so far when it seems so simple,” said Aubrey Glover, a trusts and estates lawyer at Brenlove & Fuller law firm in Bridgeville. She also serves as secretary of the Allegheny County Bar Association’s probate council.

“There are procedures in place under statute to gain access to safe deposit boxes after a person dies,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean that employees understand the law.”

Advice from attorneys

Many attorneys advise clients not to store wills in a safe deposit box unless they want to guard against fire, theft or loss or simply for privacy or protection.

Trusts and estate lawyer Charles Voelker at the Voelker & Kairys law firm Downtown, said he recommends that clients’ original last will and testament be kept in the firm’s fireproof safe deposit box .

“A copy is kept in our client’s file, a copy is sent to the testator [the writer of the will], and we suggest that the testator may want to give the executor a copy,” Mr. Voelker said. 

Lea Anderson, a shareholder and trusts and estates lawyer at Goehring Rutter & Boehm, Downtown, said the red tape involved in gaining access to a safe deposit box is a disadvantage to storing wills inside them, but there are circumstances where it is the best place.

“Some people have caretakers who come in and they become afraid it will be misplaced, lost or not available,” she said. “It is difficult and complicated to probate a copy of a will. You need the original will with original signatures.”

Still, bank safe deposit boxes may be losing popularity as a place to store valuables.

“I think it’s a generational thing. Millennials and younger folks are less likely to use a safe deposit box,” Ms. Anderson said. “It’s been my observation that many of them have safes in their home and see that safe as adequate for passports, wills and other important documents.”

Waiting for the will

For now, while she waits on her court hearing next month, Ms. Johns is paying all of the utilities at her deceased mother’s house out of her own pocket since she cannot access her mother’s funds. The power of attorney became invalid when her mother died.

Ms. Johns is employed as an office worker at Flynn’s Tire & Auto Service headquarters in West Middlesex, Mercer County, She has been married 41 years with two children and three grandchildren. She has two sisters; one older and one younger, who live in Seattle. 

As her mother’s estate remains in limbo, she can’t sell her mother’s car or the house because the house deed and the car title are both in the safe deposit box along with the original will.

“The emotion of unexpectedly losing a loved one is difficult,” Ms. Johns said. “But when you are stopped from doing what needs to be done to take care of the estate, it’s very upsetting.”