How to Find the Estate Planning Documents
Locating estate planning documents is one of the estate administrator’s most important tasks. The decedent’s will, trust agreements and amendments, letters of intent, and any documentation on assets with death benefits must be found in order to properly administer the estate. These documents could be in the decedent’s personal files, with his or her attorney, in a safe-deposit box, or scattered in several different places.
The will and codicils
The most important document to locate is the decedent’s last will and testament. The decedent may have made changes to the will, called codicils, which don’t revoke the will but add to, change, or remove something from it. A person can add an unlimited number of codicils to a will. The original of a codicil should be kept with the original will.
Note that the decedent may have placed his or her will on file with the probate court for safekeeping. If you find more than one will, the most recent will governs.
Safe-deposit box: What if the original will is inside?
Normally a safe-deposit box in the decedent’s name cannot be accessed until the decedent’s will has been admitted to probate. This can pose a problem if you think the safe-deposit box may contain the original will.
Some safe-deposit box contracts allow, upon proof of the holder’s death, a search of the box to be made for the will by an officer of the bank at the request of an appropriate party. If the safe-deposit box is held as a joint tenant, the surviving joint tenant(s) may access the box. The surviving spouse or another representative of the estate may request to be present.
Not all banks allow for a will search. However, some states allow you to file a petition with the probate court for appointment of a special administrator of the estate. That special administrator can then open the box.
The presence of a representative of the state taxing authority is sometimes required when the box is opened to make sure that no taxable assets disappear before they’re counted. Check with your state taxing authority for applicable requirements.
Trust agreements and amendments
You also want to locate any trust agreements and amendments to these agreements that the decedent may have had. There are usually at least two signed copies of a trust agreement. One copy should be located with the original will, as should any amendments to the trust. Amendments must be approved by the trustees, who administer the trust, because they only agreed to the original terms of the trust.
Letters of intent: Private disposal of property
Sometimes you find a letter of intent written before the decedent’s death on a subject he or she didn’t want to put in his or her will because a will becomes a public document when it’s filed for probate. Letters of intent are often about the disposal of personal articles and are written in the decedent’s own words rather than legal language.
Other documents that dispose of property
There are several other documents an estate administrator must look for, all of which may be located neatly with the estate plan documents, or scattered throughout the decedent’s files. These documents include:
Life insurance policies with beneficiary designations attached.
Copies of beneficiary designations as to the decedent's retirement plans.
Individual retirement accounts.
Any other assets with death benefits.