Where to look for assets
Check for assets within your loved one's financial records and tax returns, either in their desk or their computer files.
You may want to contact financial institutions such as pension and insurance companies to find out more information about assets your loved one may have kept with them, plus locate any safe-deposit boxes.
Contact your loved one's most recent and former employers to locate any insurance policies, retirement plans, or 401(k)s for which they may have paid.
Reach out to and search through local town office databases to see what types of property and assets your loved one may have owned, as well as online insurance and retirement benefit databases.
When someone dies, it’s up to their family to locate all the assets that they left behind. Although this task usually falls to the person who will ultimately be the executor of the will, having a few family members tackle this project together can make it mentally and emotionally easier.
An asset can be anything from real estate and vehicles to cash or cash equivalents such as bank accounts and stocks, as well as any personal valuables with monetary worth.
Sometimes, all of these assets and where they can be found will be listed in your loved one’s will. However, many wills simply reveal how the value of the estate will be divided, or only list a few selected items that your loved one wanted specific people to have. Or there may not be a will at all. In any of these cases, you and your family will have to identify the assets yourselves.
Locating assets can be emotionally taxing. Take it as slowly as you can—being mindful that the process cannot take forever—and be kind to yourself. As you go through all your loved one’s paperwork, some of which is likely to bring up emotions, allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling. If you look at this task as a way of honoring your loved one and preserving their legacy, you may find strength and comfort in that.
Start with their desk and computer
Although it may feel intrusive, especially if you come from a family that doesn’t talk about money, you will likely need to locate financial records to find out what assets there are.
Many people have a specific area in a desk or office where they keep their checkbook, bills, bank statements, and similar documents. This is the first place to look for anything that can point you toward the institutions your loved one had accounts with. When searching for financial accounts, don’t forget to include pensions, IRAs, insurance policies, stocks and bonds, and 401(k)s.
If you know your loved one did the majority of their finances online, and you have access to their computer, then look there. In addition to their email, check their browser history as well. Even if you don’t know the passwords for the accounts, you can at least write them down and start a list of financial firms and banks to contact.
Another important thing to locate among your loved one’s belongings is their most recent tax return. Tax returns will include any financial assets that they had. If you can’t find the most recent tax return, you can request one from the IRS by submitting the person’s name, address, and Social Security number, along with a copy of the death certificate. You will also need to include either a copy of the letters testamentary issued by the probate court or IRS Form 56, Notice Concerning Fiduciary Relationship.
Contact financial institutions
Whether you’re going to close out the accounts or just follow up to see if an account still exists, you should make an appointment with each bank or financial firm to sit down and talk to someone. You will need to bring the executor/administrator (if that’s not you), as well as the death certificate.
There’s no telling what type of financial assets or valuables you might find in the back of a sock drawer or under a loose floorboard in the attic.
Even if you come across paperwork that is several years old, it doesn’t hurt to contact those banks and firms as well. It might just be that you were unable to locate the most recent paperwork for a still-current account, so you want to be thorough and not leave any assets behind.
Also ask whomever you speak to at the banks if your loved one had a safe-deposit box. Safe-deposit boxes usually contain valuable assets—cash, jewelry, bonds, or other items of worth. Laws regarding who can access a safe-deposit box and what paperwork they need vary from state to state. For instance, you may not be able to open the box without a court order. Many banks will also charge to open the box if you do not have the key, so make sure to look for it among your loved one’s things. At this time, nothing is generally allowed to be removed; only an inventory of the contents can be made so that no asset goes unaccounted for.
Contact the person’s most recent employer
If your loved one was still working when they passed, reaching out to their employer can help you locate potential life insurance policies, retirement plans, or 401(k)s. Even if the person wasn’t working at the time of their death, it’s still worth following up with the last company they worked for. As with dealing with the bank, you will need to either be the executor/administrator or bring them with you and have the death certificate with you as well.
Contact local town offices
Reaching out to the town probate clerk and register of deeds to search their system for any financial assets, real estate, property, or businesses they either owned or co-owned is also a good idea. While much of this can be found on tax returns, town databases may be helpful to get started while you wait for a tax return from the IRS. Again, you will need to provide proof that your loved one passed away and that you have the legal authority to inquire about these matters.
Search your loved one’s home thoroughly
Some people aren’t fans of banks, so they hide their money in mattresses or in home safes. Studies have found that patients who suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s have a tendency to hide or hoard things around their home; if your loved one suffered from either of these, get creative in your search. There’s no telling what type of financial assets or valuables you might find in the back of a sock drawer or under a loose floorboard in the attic. Also be on the lookout for keys. Aside from safety deposit boxes, you may also find keys to storage units or other places where assets that you and your family were not aware of are located.
Search online databases
As an heir to your loved one’s estate, you have the right to locate and procure any unclaimed money left behind in their name. While there are many sites out there that promise to find any unclaimed funds (and some of these sites charge a fee to do so), it’s best to go to the Bureau of Fiscal Treasury, which has a list of reliable government agencies that can help you find this money.
There are also online databases for life insurance policies and retirement benefits, if you were unable to get specific information from your loved one’s most recent employer. These are MIB and Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, respectively.
Keep in mind that any unclaimed funds will eventually go to the state, so it’s always worth checking. Making sure that you fully account for every asset your loved one owned and that everything ends up in the right hands is a matter of respecting them and their legacy.
You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.
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