Judgment And Safe Deposit Boxes
Bank levies are the first thing to try, when you want to recover your judgment. This being the case, the first information to try to discover is where your judgment debtor banks. Most judgment debtors do not maintain bank safe deposit boxes (or Safety Deposit Boxes - SDBs), however some do. Bank levies require a writ of execution from the court. My articles are my opinions, and not legal advice. I am a judgment broker, and am not a lawyer. If you ever need any legal advice or a strategy to use, please contact a lawyer.
Even when you know that your judgment debtor has a bank safe deposit box (SDB), those are expensive to levy. Levy instructions should request funds from the debtor's checking and bank accounts first; and then to check for any safe deposit boxes in the name of your debtor. At that point, there is a decision to make, whether to gamble on the value of the contents of what is inside their SDB. If you can afford to risk the extra costs of having the Sheriff levy the judgment debtors SDB, it may be worth specifically requesting the SDB contents on your levy, when it gets served on the debtor's bank.
Just as some judgment creditors are not aware that the contents of a debtor's safe deposit box can be levied, many judgment debtors think that the contents of their SDB at their bank is protected from creditor levies. Judgment debtors may think they can hide some assets in a SDB, and no one will ever know. They might keep a wide variety of assets such as cash, collectibles, documents about notes receivable, jewelry, etc. That misunderstanding by judgment debtors, can be good news for judgment creditors. Those valuables can be subject to a creditor's bank levy execution.
To levy a judgment debtor's safe deposit box at their bank, you need to make a request that the bank and Sheriff check for, and possibly freeze the contents of their SDB, on the levy or execution forms filed at the court, or with the proper authority. Once the Sheriff, or other proper court representative; serves the papers on the correct bank, the contents of the judgment debtor's SDB, is subject to being used for payment toward satisfaction of your judgment.
For a levy that includes a check for safe deposit boxes, instruction letters to Sheriffs should say something similar to: "please have the Sheriff levy all funds under the name of Dan Debtor SSN 123-456-7890 at CostAPlenty bank, 123 Rich Street, San Jose, CA, 90001, for the judgment debtor. Please levy first any and all savings and deposit accounts, and then if the writ of execution is not fully satisfied, check for any and all safe deposit boxes in the name of the judgment debtor".
In California, CCP 700.150 specifies the details on how safe deposit boxes are levied, and how debtors are served notice. Government Code Section 26723 is referenced, which simply specifies a fee of $125 to open a SDB. The judgment debtor may be allowed to open their SDB voluntarily, and some do. Otherwise, the creditor must pay for forcing open and then repairing the SDB. Most of the time, this additional levy expense can be documented and added to the judgment debtor's debt.
What will happen if your levy finds a judgment debtor's safe deposit box? If your Sheriff levy instructions specify that you will pay (or prepay) the extra costs of levying a judgment debtor's bank safe deposit box, their SDB will be opened. Sometimes the key to open the SDB will appear, which usually saves the creditor money. All too often, hiring a locksmith is required to force the safe deposit box open.
When the bank's levy department responds with its "Memorandum of Garnishee", it will indicate the presence of any SDBs held in the name of your judgment debtor regarding Locksmith Alabaster. At that time, the Sheriff will send you a letter and give you (e.g.) five days to let them know you want the box(es) opened by drilling. If you do, you will have to pay the Sheriff some money (e.g., $150 per visit) and usually, the bank more money (e.g., $300 per box) to drill the box(es).
The bank will offer the judgment debtor a chance to visit the bank and open their box voluntarily (however not to remove any contents). If the judgment debtor does not accept the bank's kind offer, their safe deposit boxholder privileges will be forfeited and the drilling takes place on the appointed day. Some Sheriffs require the creditor to be present on this festive occasion, others do not.
Occasionally the judgment debtor or a third-party, will claim some or all of what is in the safe deposit box does not belong to the debtor. In that case the non-debtor co-owner would have to come forward and file a third-party claim of exemption with the Sheriff, indicating the source of the funds or assets. If you suspect shenanigans, you may be able to subpoena records related to the ownership of the contents of the safe deposit box.