Q: I had a co-tenant safety deposit box with my mother. She passed away. The bank called and had me close the box and
Stated that the Contents belonged to me. Now I’m being threatened with a law suit that the contents go to the estate. I’m in Virginia. Is co-tenant the same as co-owner in Virginia? Who owns the contents?
A: It is more complex than that, but could easily have been resolved if specified in a proper Will. If the reason you were a co-tenant on the box was for the convenience of your mother, then the box belongs to the estate. Basically, the law interprets your role as one of a trustee of something called a Totten Trust. If the reason the box was titled to you and your mother as co-tenants was because she intended that the contents be yours, then they are yours. To put that in legalese, you are either the "legal" owner or the "beneficial" owner. Adding to the complication of doing this informally instead of with a Will, If the box was owned by you and your mother as tenants in common of the undivided whole. then half of the box value belongs to you, and the other half belongs to the estate. If, on the other hand, you were the joint tenant with right of survivorship or the Pay-on-Death co-tenant, then the box contents are yours. In any event, the bank's views on this are incompetent (as lawyers use that word) and immaterial to whether you are the beneficiary. The cheap answer is to turn it over the the estate. Otherwise, you need to review with counsel. Some cheap solutions in the law are far more expensive than the expensive solution.
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