For more than a decade, a Florida ­woman stored a valuable necklace in a Chase Bank safe-deposit box, figuring it would be perfectly safe there. But in 2016, she couldn’t get into the box—the lock had been changed, the contents were missing and the box had been rented to a different customer, even though she had paid her rental bills on time. Fast forward to 2019: A friend of the woman noticed the missing necklace at a state auction for unclaimed property, where the woman managed to recover it.

Losses from safe-deposit boxes are not uncommon, especially because of banking errors and especially in recent years as banks have consolidated the boxes into fewer branches. Additional problems that lead to losses: Missed rent payments (especially common when box holders die and when addresses change)…fires…floods and other disasters. One insurance company estimates that 33,000 boxes a year experience some form of damage or loss. 

Customers often receive little or no compensation. In the case of the Florida woman, several years had passed before she visited the box and discovered the problem, so Chase argued successfully that the statute of liability had expired.

The FDIC insurance that protects most bank accounts does not cover safe-deposit-box contents. Homeowner’s insurance generally provides only limited coverage for items stored outside the home. And contracts typically cap bank liability at low levels—for example, just $500 at Wells Fargo. What to do…

Check your insurance contract to determine whether the contents are ­sufficiently covered. If coverage is insufficient, ask how much a rider costs, although these riders (and homeowner’s insurance in general) rarely cover flood damage. To reduce this risk, seal safe-deposit-box contents in a waterproof bag and request a box high up. Or skip the rider and purchase a specialized safe-deposit-box policy that includes flood coverage. Example: Safe Deposit Box Insurance is the leader in this field. (Policies cost $25/year for $5,000 in coverage…$200/year for $100,000 in coverage. No deductibles. SafeDepositBoxInsurance.com.)

Check your box at least once each year. Make sure that your heirs and the ­executor of your estate are aware of your box to reduce the odds that it will be missed or its bill unpaid.