How to Locate a Decedent's Assets through the Mail
As you read the decedent’s mail, you may find references to many assets, including bank accounts (from bank statements), the safe deposit box (from any rental bills), real estate (from real estate tax and insurance bills), stocks and bonds (from dividend and interest checks, brokerage statements, mutual fund statements, retirement account statements), and correspondence regarding other assets.
Checking the mail isn’t just a great way to figure out what the decedent owned; it also works well for eliminating items that may have been on your preliminary list but no longer exist (perhaps the decedent had told you or a family member about something years ago). More than one administrator has been surprised to find that longtime family heirlooms now belong to someone else.
Make no mistake about it: Bank statements contain a wealth of information. Not only do they give you account numbers and at least an idea of how much value the accounts contain, but they also let you know how the decedent held title to the accounts. He or she may have owned it outright (in his or her name alone), with another person, or even through a trust.
Although his or her recollections while alive may be a bit sketchy, your task is much easier after you have your hands on at least one statement from each account. Armed with a copy of your appointment by the probate court as executor, you have no difficulty in obtaining the most current statements, as well as any prior statements you need.
If you manage to uncover the bank statements for the checking account, you’ve hit pay dirt! Our experience is that, especially as our clients and family age, their once-pristine check registers become, well, less pristine, and determining what their typical monthly bills look like is often difficult.
With the checking account bank statements in hand, figuring out who’s been paid, for what period, and who’s still waiting (often very patiently!) is easier. As banking has become more and more deregulated, many people are paying their monthly bills by using an account with a mutual fund company or an investment firm; these statements may also be a rich source of information.
Banks issue statements periodically (usually monthly, but sometimes quarterly) and not always on the last day of a month. In your initial search for assets, you want to find the one dated most closely to the date of death to give you a general idea of the value in the account on the date of death.
As soon as you know the asset exists, contact the bank directly in order to get an exact balance, including any accrued interest, as of the date of death. And don’t forget the online bank accounts and accounts for which the decedent had elected not to receive paper statements!
If you’re not sure whether you’ve found all the bank accounts, write a letter to each local bank (and each bank in any city where the decedent has a vacation home) inquiring whether it houses any accounts (or safe deposit boxes) in which the decedent had an interest. You should get full cooperation if you include a certified copy of your appointment as executor.
As good as finding the bank statements feels, finding the brokerage statements feels even better. In most estates that contain any valuable property outside of real estate, brokerage accounts are where you find most of it. Identifying where those accounts are, and in whose names they’re registered, takes you a long way toward compiling a complete list of what the decedent owned.
Don’t forget the online brokerage accounts and those for which the decedent elected not to receive paper statements, either!
Brokerage statements typically give you the market value of the individual securities on the statement date. Because determining the general size of the entire estate relatively quickly is important (you need this information to figure out whether you have to do a full probate or not), find the statement closest to the date of death to get a general sense of what these assets were worth on that date.
If your decedent had a brokerage account, review as many statements as you can locate for any evidence of churning. If you find what seems to be inappropriate, unnecessary trading, as was the case with one of our decedents, an elderly widow, seek out an attorney, a CPA, or an EA who is an expert in spotting stockbroker fraud to review the account’s investment history for signs of churning.