You might well, sooner or later, end up in possession of sensitive papers or other portable assets of great value that should be kept in a safe place – like an offshore safety deposit facility.
What kind of things are we talking about? Any valuable papers. Things like automobile Titles, Coins (rare), Passports, Bearer Shares, Citizenship Records, Bills of Sale, Pension records, school transcripts, trust documents, immigration papers, rare stamps, mortgage documents and so on. You may also wish to store data such as USB memory sticks or backup DVDs securely off-site.
A safety deposit box is also recommended by many experts for estate planning purposes. To pass the contents of a safe deposit box to your heirs without any formalities, all that is necessary is that another person has access and a key. This is accomplished by having the inheritor be a signer on the box. If you don’t want them to have access during your lifetime, you keep the key and arrange for it to be delivered to them in a sealed envelope with instructions, upon your death or disability.
Should you use a Bank or an Independent Safe Deposit Box Company?
Generally the best solution is to rent a safety deposit box in a reliable major, first class bank – not just a box company. Many banks will require that you also have an account with them and that withdrawals to pay the box rent be authorized in advance.
Why should you use a bank rather than an independent safe deposit company? Because independent companies seem to fold or get robbed with great regularity. Like public storage facilities, they are also frequently used by less desirable characters.
On the other hand, a private storage outfit may not require any identification to open a box. They may accept any nom de plume you care to give them. Customers may be admitted on the basis of a plastic card without any need to sign in. As such a box is not linked to any account or payment facility, it requires the user to pay several years in advance. This will avoid the box being opened and the contents sold for non-payment of rent.
One client told me the sad story of how after a long hospital stay due to cancer, he discovered that his box in a public self-storage unit had been opened after a year for non-payment of rent. The contents were sold at auction. He had a collection of old stock certificates that were worthless as stocks, but of great value to collectors. One had a rare original signature of inventor Thomas Edison. They were disposed of as scrap paper.
The Best Countries for Offshore Safe Deposit Boxes
Austria, Switzerland and Luxembourg are traditional safe havens that are perfect for safe deposit boxes. A good country for a box is one where there is no need to show a passport or go through any formal border controls. This is not the case with Switzerland – unless you take your chances on one of the very few unmanned border crossings!
Vienna and Zurich airports are also convenient national airline hubs. You can conveniently pass through these countries when traveling between other cities. Just arrange a stop over long enough to visit your stash; putting in or taking out what you need. For a safety deposit box locale you don’t need to seek out a tax haven. Any peaceful, stable country where property rights are respected is just fine.
Almost all banks offer safety deposit boxes. If yours is located in a country where you have no problems, it doesn’t matter much which one you use. But you should have at least one person you trust who knows about the box and is able to access it. If you have an accident it is important that your box not be forgotten or abandoned.
Keep the Key Safe!
When you have opened the box, consider depositing the key in a sealed envelope with the bank’s safekeeping office or your personal private banker. By doing this you ensure that the key won’t be discovered on your person or among your possessions by anyone with dubious intentions, like your soon-to-be ex-wife.
Many bank safety deposit boxes have two keys – one is held by you. The second (a general pass key) is kept by the bank. Only with both can the box be opened.
In the very latest high-tech safe deposit boxes, there is no key. These safe-deposit boxes can be opened only with fingerprint scans. Another solution is to use boxes in places where they have combination locks. Experienced safe-crackers are good at opening combo-locks. They are less secure than complex keys – in our experience. We are likewise not keen on secret memorized numbers. Why? Because we have more than once forgotten an important combination or password.
Be sure that you can access the box without showing ID, in case you lose it and need to get at your backup copies that you thoughtfully secured inside the box! Some banks, particularly those in Zurich, want to see and photocopy ID every time you access your box – even if you are well known. Where ever your box may be, be sure you are introduced to several of the staff who can help you access your box without ID should you need to. Tell them to take a good look and remember you personally so you can always access your box or the money in the account without any identification. Tell them your favorite stupid joke or story and tell them to remember it so that you can tell it again many years later. Then they will remember you!
Shhh… Can You Keep a Secret?
Don’t just take a safe deposit box key and keep it on a gold chain around your neck at all times. This is something that movie villains do.
If you want something secret, always think ahead. Don’t tell anyone about it. Leave the key and instructions with your personal banker or someone you trust implicitly. Also think ahead! Leave death instructions in your box – just in case something happens to you. These can be written, or can be on a CD in video form. Your box will be opened after about a year or two of inactivity – if and when the annual fees don’t get paid.
Sometimes a safe deposit box is forgotten for decades. About seventy years after the criminal mastermind and reputed billionaire Al Capone died in prison, a closed bank that he once owned in Chicago was found to have a long forgotten, secret locked underground vault registered in his name. His money had never been found. A national television network bought rights to show the drilling and re-opening of this vault ‘live on TV.’ Many people, myself included, tuned in for the grand opening. We thought it would be an event to equal the discovery of King Tut’s fabulous tomb in Egypt. What happened? It was a good show with a let-down for an ending. Apparently, someone with a spare key to Al Capone’s safe deposit facility had arrived there first. Nothing of the slightest interest was in the vault.
Will Your Secrets Die With You?
Most offshore banks will require that you have a bank account with them and that they be authorized to withdraw your annual safety deposit box rent payments from that account. With such instructions and automated payment you could be dead for many years before you are presumed dead and your box is drilled. Thus your banker should perhaps be instructed to open your instructions (not your box) in case he doesn’t hear from you for a certain period of time, like say three years. Better yet, your banker should be instructed “after 3 years of no contact, please contact my attorney, XYZ, or your kids, wife, best friend.” Someone you trust should have instructions on what to do with your assets in the event of your death, disappearance or disability. Your banker should be told what to do or how and when he is to contact those persons who will surely know where you are.
Perhaps someone you trust, who has nothing to gain from suing you, should be given a sealed power of attorney or an assignment plus a valid will so that all loose ends are tied up. Without this, in Switzerland for instance, the bank just keeps your assets! Simple as that. In English speaking countries there is usually an escheat law covering dormant accounts and abandoned safe deposit box contents. In England, unclaimed money and assets go to ‘The Crown.’ In California, box contents and accounts dormant for over seven years go to the Teachers’ Pension Fund.
In such cases, the heirs have only a very limited time to make claims. Most never do because they never learn of the assets.
Your Anonymous Safe in an Austrian Palace
The Swiss and the Austrians generally excel at running discreet safe deposit facilities. In nearly all countries, ID is required to rent a safe box. But in Austria, at the time of writing, there is one safe deposit company offering anonymous safes. It has been around for years and was highly recommended by a reader. It’s a good place to store second passports, bank cards and other PT paraphernalia that you may not want to keep in your home country.
This company has its facilities in the basement of a beautiful Viennese palace. It’s name is Das Safe and its website is http://www.dassafe.com If you are in Vienna, you can visit them at Auerspergstrasse 1. We predict they will stay in business for a long time to come, but for how long they will be allowed to take anonymous business is open to question.
Other recommended safe deposit facilities in Austria are at the Schoellerbank branches (where no key is required – access is regulated by an electronic fingerprint scan) and at the Raiffeisenbank in the ‘secret’ enclave of Jungholz.
A Reliable Safe Deposit Company in Prague
Another service we know of is Prague Safe Deposit in the Czech Republic. They require valid ID to open a box. The service from then on is highly professional and discreet with no ID required for later access. You can pay up to five years in advance. Entry to the main vault is self-service with a swipe card system at the main door. You can give the door card and key to anyone. They can then gain access to your safe-box without the need to meet any staff or identify themselves in any way.
This particular enterprise is a joint venture between one of the Czech banks and the Checkpoint chain of money changers. It has been around since 1992. They are located in the basement of an old bank building just off the famous Wenceslas Square. They welcome visitors to stop by and inspect the facilities. The street address is 28 Ijna 13. The website is not currently available in English, but if you do visit them you will find they speak English.