Benjamin T. Ballou | Hodges & Davis Law Firm Northwest Indiana

In 1989, the Indiana Court of Appeals held that a lease for a safe deposit box is sufficient to establish a right of survivorship, if the language of the agreement specifically provides for that arrangement.

In Matter of Estate of Langley, two women, Langley and Highman, rented a safe deposit box following nearly 40 years of friendship.  In renting the box, Langley and Highman signed a contract that provided: “all right of access thereto shall belong exclusively to the survivor or survivors.”  Following Langley’s death, the personal representative of Langley’s Estate obtained a restraining order against Highman to prevent her from accessing the safe deposit box and asserted that the box was the property of the Estate.

This case thus presented a single issue: Whether a lease contract that specifically provided for a right of survivorship between Highman and Langley was sufficient to create such a right.

The Court of Appeals held that the lease was sufficient to create a right of survivorship.

The Court adopted a “contract” theory regarding the lease. To that end, the Court was careful to distinguish between agreements that specifically indicate an intention to create rights of survivorship, and those that do not.  Since the lease agreement contained such specific language, and Highman and Langley signed the document, the Court held that the contents of the safe deposit box passed to Highman upon Langley’s death.

By contrast, the Court of Appeals has also concluded that gun collections are not “household goods”, and therefore may not be subject to survivorship rights under state law.  In In re Estate of Roberts, a couple had amassed a sizeable gun collection of nearly 300 items. Both spouses died, but the Court had to decide whether the gun collection passed to the wife’s estate upon the prior death of her husband.

Under Indiana Law, “household goods” pass to the surviving spouse upon the others’ death.  “Household goods” are those items with which a home is equipped which are necessary for a person to live in a “convenient and comfortable manner.”  Since the gun collection was so large, not used for protection, and stored out of sight in the basement, the Court concluded that the collection was not imbued with a right of survivorship.

The key takeaway here is that people who wish to create a right of survivorship in the contents of a safe deposit box must ensure that the bank’s safe deposit contract language specifically indicates that intention.  In other words, agreements that merely allow for a surviving co-tenant to access the contents of the safe deposit box are insufficient to create survivorship rights.  By contrast, a large gun collection may not be subject to rights of survivorship unless the guns are demonstrably used for self-defense, in which case they may constitute “household goods”, and pass to a surviving spouse.


This article constitutes a brief summary regarding rights of survivorship.  The information provided does not constitute legal advice, nor does it establish an attorney/client relationship.  If you have any questions regarding the contents of this article, please contact Hodges and Davis attorneys Benjamin T. Ballou or Carl J. Hall.


Hodges & Davis- July 2020