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How to Locate a Decedent's Assets in Safes and Computer Files

When marshalling a decedent’s assets, check any safe-deposit boxes in the decedent’s name and go through his or her computer files. There may be valuable assets or important documentation in the decedent’s safe deposit box. Have a witness with you when opening the box and taking inventory of the contents. Be sure to back up the hard drive of the decedent’s computer when looking through his or her files.

Emptying the decedent’s safe-deposit box

Locating and emptying the decedent’s safe-deposit box (if he or she has one) is a key step in finding the valuables in the estate. The quickest way to find the box is, of course, to ask the question before death. But there are other ways to locate the box if the decedent didn’t disclose its location to you.

Most people rent a safe-deposit box in the bank where they do the majority of their business, so check there first. You may find a record of the box among the decedent’s papers. If you don’t find any record, you can approach the bank(s) directly and ask after you’ve received your appointment as the estate’s executor.

After you find the box, you have to open it. If you don’t have the key or the combination, you can have the lock drilled for a fee. As long as you have a copy of your appointment by the probate court, the bank should help you access the contents.

Take a witness with you when you open the box and make a list of everything inside. Even better, have the witness videotape you opening the box and what you find. When you’re dealing with property that’s not yours, especially property that may have significant monetary or sentimental value, you can’t be too cautious.

Accessing the decedent’s computer files

In order to locate all the assets, you’ll probably need to be able to access the information on the decedent’s computer. In some cases, you may run into difficulties breaking through passwords and other safeguards. You may find it helpful to use someone who is computer savvy in order to get to the information you need.

Before you begin digging for files, make a complete backup of the hard drive, and of any loose disks, flash drives, CD-ROMs, or DVD-ROMs you find lying around. This prevents the loss of data, and ensures that you have the information that was most current on the date of death.

The best way to back up any computer is to purchase an external hard drive. The cost of the external hard drive is a valid expense of the estate (including the cost of a technician if you really don’t want to do the backup yourself), and you should pay it from estate funds, not from your own funds.

As more people computerize their financial records and replace paper statements and bills with virtual equivalents, the computer may contain the only records of those bank and brokerage accounts. On the computer, you can see evidence of sources of income as well as debts owed. You can probably even find copies of tax returns.

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