How to Locate a Decedent's Hidden Assets
4 of 7 in Series: The Essentials of Marshalling Estate Assets
Going through a decedent’s personal papers and hiding places may seem invasive, but it is necessary for an estate’s executor to conduct a search for all of the decedent’s assets, including hidden assets, when preparing an estate inventory. If you uncover any debts owed to the decedent, they count as assets and it is the executor’s job to pursue collection. Search the decedent’s residence(s) for any lost or hidden items.
Examine the decedent's personal papers carefully
You may discover, in the decedent’s personal papers, a number of assets you didn’t know existed or couldn’t locate. Common finds include safe-deposit box keys, jewelry appraisals, insurance policies, references to real estate, and even stock certificates and registered bonds that the decedent didn’t put away for safekeeping. Go through personal papers methodically and carefully. Never throw out any piece of paper without reviewing it for clues to estate assets.
Your search through the paperwork and records may turn up information regarding loans, notes, or other debts owed to the decedent. These are assets of the estate, and your duty as executor is to include them on the inventory, along with interest accrued through the date of death. You must then pursue the collection of the note or debt.
If you find loan documents (a promissory note, perhaps, or even a mortgage), they remain in force even after the decedent’s death unless otherwise specified in the documents or in the decedent’s will. If the documents don’t forgive these loans upon the decedent’s death, then they are assets of the estate, and the estate administrator must enforce the terms.
Find the decedent’s hiding places
People stash what they perceive as valuable in different ways and places. Your job, as the executor, is to attempt to find all these hiding places. You have to find everything applicable for the estate, and your search needs to include the following:
House safes: A house safe is usually a locked, fireproof box that’s hidden somewhere inconspicuous, with an eye to protecting certain documents and valuables. Check closets, drawers, under beds and dressers, in the attic, and in the basement. Even check the freezer.
After locating the safe, you may need to have the lock professionally opened. The locksmith will need to see a copy of your appointment as executor. You may want an additional witness with you to note what is in the box. Make an inventory of the contents as soon as you open it, sign the inventory, and have the second person sign it as a witness to the contents.
Other unusual spots: Make a reasonable search for anything that may be either intentionally or unintentionally hidden. Maybe the decedent didn’t trust banks to keep money safe so they stashed cash at home. Or maybe through accidental circumstances the decedent lost a valuable asset somewhere in his or her house. You may find hidden or misplaced assets under the floorboards, in the backyard, under a mattress, etc.