How Do I Locate Assets of a Late Family Member?

Old Trunk that Might Contain Family Assets

You've been appointed executor of the estate of a loved one. Taking your responsibilities seriously, you undertake to locate and identify all of the deceased's assets for an inventory. It is not always easy to locate assets of a late family member. Especially if the deceased was a parent, you may have a pretty good idea of where to start; after all, you took dad to the bank every other week, so you know where his account was. But beyond checking and savings accounts, do you really know what assets he had? And how do you begin to find out?

Locating a loved one's assets is often challenging because we rarely have direct conversations with each other about exactly what we own and where it is. As an adult child, asking an aging parent about these matters can feel (to your parent or to you) as if you're just waiting for them to die so you can collect their wealth. While of course this is not the case, the discomfort of broaching the topic prevents most people from doing so. Then, one day, it's too late.

Here's a helpful guide on how to locate assets of a late family member so they can go through the probate process.

Locating Financial Assets

Start by locating the estate planning portfolio. It might be a three-ring binder or a simple envelope. Oftentimes, estate planning attorneys will tell their clients to place important asset information with their will and trust. The portfolio may be located in a safe, fire-resistant container, or safe deposit box.

Like most of us, your loved one probably had a desk or dining room table where they sat to pay bills and balance their checkbook, and that's a good place to investigate. Look at their check register, bank statements, statements of brokerage accounts, and evidence of insurance policies, safe deposit boxes, deeds, timeshare ownership, pensions or retirement plans. Most importantly, locate recent tax returns and read them for information pertaining to financial assets producing capital gains, dividends, or other income.

Of course, many people now receive account statements online. If you have access to your late loved one's computer, that is another place you should look. Check e-mails and browser history for references to financial institutions.

Most of us are not as good about purging our paper files as we should be, and that may work to your advantage. If your loved one had a file cabinet, or even a couple of desk drawers stuffed full of papers, they likely saved important information about financial assets. Even if the last statement you can find for an account is years old, follow up anyway; more recent statements may have been online.

All of this may feel intrusive; some people remark that during their loved one's life, they never so much as opened the drawer of the person's desk to look for a paper clip. But recognize that your family member (or a judge) chose you to administer the estate for a reason. Somebody will have to go through your late loved one's papers. It might as well be someone like you, who will do so respectfully.

You'll also need to do some legwork. Go to the deceased's bank, with your appointment as executor and the death certificate in hand. Inquire as to any accounts or safe deposit boxes in the deceased's name. You may also want to go to the county probate clerk and register of deeds and ask that a search be run for assets or real estate that was in the deceased's name. It's also worth a trip or call to the deceased's most recent employer to see if there were any retirement plans or life insurance policies through the employer of which you were unaware. Remember that any organization with which you interact will require you to present documentation of your authority as executor.

Last, but not least, touch base with your loved one's estate planning attorney and accountant. They may have on file a list of assets from the time the estate plan or tax returns were prepared.

Locating Personal Property of Value

Did your loved one have a safe deposit box? You may not even know. While you are going through their desk and files to look for financial accounts and insurance information, be a detective. Is there a recurring rental payment for a storage unit on credit card statements? The unit might be full of junk, or filled with antique furniture. Does the bank statement show a regular monthly payment to a company you don't recognize? Follow up to make sure it's not a payment on an insurance policy or other asset.

Things get a little more dicey if you suspect there are tangible assets of value, like jewelry, coins, or collectibles, but you don't know where they are. Search the home of the deceased thoroughly, and don't throw anything out unless and until you're convinced it has no value. That drawer full of tangled, tarnished old chains and costume jewelry could contain one item worth thousands of dollars. The dusty shoebox on a closet shelf filled with childhood memorabilia could hold a rare baseball card.

Then there are those items that are deliberately hidden, in predictable places like safes, or in odder locations like mattresses or under floorboards. We know of one elderly lady whose nephew was dragging her uncommonly lumpy old mattress to the curb after her passing. He noticed a tear in the mattress and investigated. It turned out the "lumps" were bundles of money, years' worth of rental payments from her upstairs tenants, whom she insisted pay her in cash.

If you are working with an experienced probate attorney, he or she may be able to give you additional guidance as to where you should look for your loved one's assets.

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