If you have a relative who recently died and left you in charge of his or her finances, you are not alone. You probably have colleagues at work in the same boat. A neighbor or two (or 10) and even your millennial yoga teacher might very well be working through a quagmire of wills, probates and assets nobody can find. You are definitely not the only one.
The internet has made it much easier to keep track of our checking, savings and investment accounts. But the elder generation generally missed out on the convenience of dashboard consolidation and app trackers. What most of them leave behind are file cabinets full of bank statements and old bills, bookshelves of file folders and prospectuses – perhaps once carefully catalogued. You may start rummaging through papers and not find anything more recent than five years ago.
How do you wrap your hands around investments and assets you know your dad owned but have no idea where they are?
Bear in mind that when there is no activity in an account for a year or more, assets may be deemed dormant or abandoned. They could eventually become property of the domicile state through a process called escheat, so it is important that you do not wait too long before finding lost assets.
Start at Home
If your parent used a computer, you should get access to his file folders and dig into his email account to see if he received any electronic communications from financial companies. If he wasn’t computer literate, then start with the mail. It may take six months to a year to get your hands on all of the paperwork, but if your relative did not sign up for electronic delivery then companies are required to send him statements through the U.S. mail.
If no one continues to live at his home, the easiest way to do this is to notify the post office to route all of his mail to your address. To do this, you will need to complete a Forwarding Change of Address order at the post office and provide proof that you are authorized to manage the deceased’s mail.
As you’re rummaging through Dad’s paperwork, here are some tips on what to do:
- Look for bills and check if those entities are holding a utility deposit;
- Look for statements for bank accounts, bonds, stocks, mutual funds, CDs, dividend or payroll checks, life insurance policies and retirement accounts;
- Look for any record of a safe deposit box, such as a bill for the rental or a key; if he has one it is most likely located at his bank branch;
- Contact his past employers to ask if they have any record of pensions, retirement plans or employer-purchased life insurance for your parent.
Once you get your hands on any statements, call the company or broker listed. You will need to send them certain documents to verify your parent is deceased (or a durable power of attorney document if he is incapacitated). Different firms and circumstances might have different requirements, but you’ll definitely need to send a copy of the death certificate. You may also be asked to provide a Court Letter of Appointment naming you as executor, a “stock power” of attorney that enables you to transfer ownership of stock, a state tax inheritance waiver, affidavit of domicile, trustee certification showing successor trustee, and/or a letter of authorization for joint accounts.
You’ll need to call and provide these or similar documents for each institution where your parent holds assets. Don’t worry, these companies have trained staff to help guide you through the legal process of how to manage the assets of deceased account owners.
Move to the Internet
Check unclaimed property lists at every state where your father lived. Get started at Unclaimed.org, a free website that allows you to search for unclaimed property held by each state. Also search at MissingMoney.com to conduct a national search.
Go to the Pros
If you’re sure your relative had more assets than you’re able to find, consider hiring a forensic accountant. These professionals have the tools and expertise to find offshore accounts, shell companies and other types of financial accounting practices. For example, a forensic accountant may request an IRS transcript that reports past 1099-DIV and 1099-INT distributions. Note that banks are required to issue such forms for account activity involving $10 or more.
You also may want to share your task with your own financial advisors. They might be able to recommend ways to help you track down, transfer and manage your parents’ assets, particularly if you need to set up income sources for another parent or relative. The point is, you don’t have to go it alone. This is a common problem and there are experts to help you work through it – but it will likely take time, patience and a lot of paperwork.