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How to find estate assets as an executor

Part of an estate executor’s job is to create an inventory of all assets belonging to the estate. Here’s what you need to know.

How to find estate assets

Being an estate executor is a big job, and one that entails many duties and responsibilities that you’re perhaps encountering for the first time.

You’ll need to file important paperwork in a timely fashion, make funeral arrangements, complete tax returns, and communicate with banks and insurers to notify them of your loved one’s passing and get the information that you need for probate.

A huge part of this process entails the so-called “discovery of assets,” which means that you’ll need to create an inventory of all of the deceased’s assets, as well as their value, in order to determine the size of the estate and distribute inheritances according to the will’s directions.

This asset discovery process can feel particularly daunting for many executors. While some people may have meticulously planned their estate and left a clear, detailed set of instructions for their estate executor to find all relevant assets once they pass, this isn’t always the case.

Sometimes people pass without a will, or without having updated their wills to reflect their current assets, or may have a sprawling estate without having left behind a clear roadmap for their executor. For someone who’s never had to go through this process before, this step can feel daunting.

First, an executor needs authorization.

First things first: In order to access certain assets, like bank accounts or insurance policies, you’ll need specific documents to prove that you’re the deceased’s estate executor and are authorized by the probate court to carry out your duties.

What documents are required to find the assets of the deceased?

Death certificate

The first thing you’ll need is your loved one’s death certificate. You’ll need this, along with the will, when you first apply for probate, but you also may need to show it to financial institutions and insurers.

Letters of testamentary/letters of administration

When you submit a petition for probate to the relevant court, along with the deceased’s will and the death certificate, the court will issue letters of testamentary if you’ve been named estate executor in the will. These documents state that the will has been deemed valid and that your appointment as executor has been approved by a legal body. Many institutions, such as banks and insurers, will ask to see these letters before handing over assets.

If the deceased left no will and the court nominated you as their personal administrator (basically the same thing as an executor), then they’ll issue letters of administration, which have the same function.

Claim application form

If you’re trying to access assets such as bank accounts or investment accounts, then these institutions may ask you to fill out a claim application form, which will provide them with the information they need to transfer the assets to the estate bank account you’ve set up.

Where are estate assets most commonly found?

Once you’ve gathered the documents you need, it’s time to start searching. This step can feel overwhelming, and you’re probably wondering where to even begin. These are the most common sources for finding out what exactly your loved one owned:

The will.

If your loved one left behind a will, they will most likely have listed their belongings and designated heirs and beneficiaries for them. This will be a good roadmap for what you should be looking for.

The testator’s lawyer or accountant.

If your loved one worked on their estate plan with an estate lawyer, they will know what assets belonged to the estate and where they’re located. Even if the testator did not use a lawyer or accountant for estate planning purposes but utilized their services for wealth management purposes, they may be able to help you get a clear picture of where and what to look for.

A list prepared by the testator.

If your loved one prepared an estate plan before they passed, they most likely created a detailed list of all assets that formed part of their estate, and where to find them.

Financial statements and legal documents.

Where did your loved one keep important documents? In a filing cabinet in their office at home? In a safety deposit box? These documents will give you a better understanding of the size of the estate.

Recent tax returns.

These documents will also help you see the approximate value of the estate.

Digging deeper

Although the sources listed above are important places to look for assets, and will often yield a comprehensive list of all the assets in the estate, sometimes you just have to dig deeper. If you think there may still be something missing or if the testator didn’t leave a detailed list of their assets and where to find them, here are some other places to search:

Life insurance search.

If you think your loved one may have had a life insurance policy but you can’t find a record of it anywhere, then you can reach out to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) in the United States or the OmbudService for Life and Health Insurance in Canada.

Both offer free tools to search for life insurance policies and annuity contracts of deceased family members. You can also contact insurers directly, or check bank records for monthly or annual payments in order to determine whether the deceased was paying for a policy.

Another option is to contact the deceased’s employer to find out whether a life insurance policy may have been part of a benefits package.

Retirement benefits and pension search.

If the deceased was retired at the time of their passing, they were probably receiving some kind of pension or using a retirement fund.

For pension information and to claim unclaimed pensions, it’s best to contact the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation in the US, as well as the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits, where you can look for benefits from retirement accounts such as 401(k)s.

In Canada, the Bank of Canada will act as custodian for unclaimed benefits and balances. Many investment companies and banks can also help provide this information, as can former employers.

Digital assets.

Online only banks, investment brokers, and digital wallets holding cryptocurrency and NFTs have quickly become as commonplace as their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

While financial institutions can be more easily contacted, making it easier to claim the assets held by them, cryptocurrency and NFTs are usually harder to access, since they tend to be well-hidden and password protected.

The best way, apart from combing through your loved one’s hard drive and email accounts, is to receive a list of instructions from the testator ahead of time. Digital assets can be tricky to find, which is why it’s particularly important to plan ahead here.

Accounts from failed banks and credit unions.

Sometimes banks go bankrupt. Sometimes someone opened an account with a bank and then moved to another state or even another country and forgot about it.

The best way to find out whether your loved one had assets in a no-longer existing financial institution or in one they haven’t been in contact with for a while is to use a search service that will look for any hidden or overseen assets, as well as going through public records for business interests, real estate, and anything else that may have been overlooked.

These kinds of services are usually a bit of a last resort for executors who have exhausted all other options while looking for assets.

As you can see, the asset discovery stage of the estate settlement process is no walk in the park for many executors. It requires a lot of attention to detail, patience, and organization.

Thankfully, you don’t have to do it alone.

ClearEstate offers an inventory service so that executors can find what they need as quickly as possible, and keep track of everything in a clear and concise way. Curious to learn more? Schedule a free consultation and find out how we can help.

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