It can be overwhelming to find yourself in charge of someone’s estate, especially if you’ve never handled an estate before.
One of the duties that fall upon your shoulders is to compile a list of the estate’s assets. While some of the assets are obvious such as furniture, vehicles, and houses, there may also be assets that are not as obvious and which can easily get missed.
The beneficiaries of the estate may lose out on valuable assets if you don’t know where to look.
What types of assets are easily lost, and how can you find them?
Storage facilities and safe deposit boxes often go overlooked.
Insurance policies, old bank accounts, stocks and bonds, prepaid funerals, and even items hidden in the house may hold great value but get lost in the shuffle.
How can you find these hidden assets?
Finding Valuable Assets Within An Estate
One of the first things you think of in regard to an estate is the life insurance policies that pay cash money to the beneficiaries upon someone’s death. Insurance policies can be difficult to locate.
Look through the past year’s checkbook to see if any payments were made to insurance companies.
If the person was working, their W-2’s may show life insurance payments. In addition, some bank accounts include built-in life insurance policies, so you’ll want to sit down with the banker and ask.
While it’s relatively easy to discover the bank accounts which are currently active, there may be other bank accounts that are not as obvious.
Look for blank checks, bank statements, and debit cards among any papers you find and then contact the banks to see if the accounts are still open.
Don’t limit your search to the past year, either. Go back through several years’ worth of documents and pull out every bank statement that you find. It’s not uncommon for people to hold accounts at multiple banks, sometimes forgetting that an account still has money in it.
Safe Deposit Boxes
Any bank who the decedent did business with should be contacted in regard to a safe deposit box. These are rented so you should find a record of payment either in the checkbook or on the bank statements.
Don’t disregard banks that weren’t actively holding accounts, either. If you discover a small payment to a bank among the checking account payments, contact the bank and find out what it was for.
Prepaid Vehicle and Homeowner’s Insurance
Prepaid insurance policies also affect the estate and are easily missed.
Anyone who owns a home or a vehicle will likely have insurance to cover accidents, theft, vandalism, acts of nature, and so forth. These insurance policies are paid in advance, sometimes for a year at a time. That’s as good as money in the bank if the asset is sold.
There may still be time left on the insurance policy and you can get a rebate for the unused portion of the payment.
For homeowner’s insurance, look at the mortgage statements for payments made out of the escrow account.
This will tell you who the current insurance company is. If the home is paid off, look through the decedent’s checkbook as they’ll be making yearly payments out of pocket.
The checkbook is where you’ll look for auto insurance premiums as well, or you might just look in their wallet for an insurance card.
You can set up a burial fund to pay for your funeral in advance.
If the deceased had a spouse who died before them, it’s likely that they would use the same funeral home and cemetery in their burial planning. Find out where the spouse’s funeral was held and contact the funeral home.
As even a simple funeral can cost upwards of $5,000, discovering that the funeral has already been paid for increases the value of the estate. Also, contact the cemetery and inquire whether a plot was purchased in advance.
If there was no spouse, then the location of the parent’s or grandparent’s funeral homes and cemetery plots may also lead you in the right direction.
In a world of people moving around the country, it’s possible that any burial plans would have been made in a person’s hometown so look there as well.
Checkbooks and bank accounts are your best way of locating storage units.
Like an apartment, storage facilities rent their units by the month, so you’ll be looking for either a monthly or yearly payment to a storage facility. While someone may prepay the rent for up to a year, it is unlikely that they would have paid for longer so going back through the past 12 months of payments from the bank account should suffice.
Keep in mind that the name of the storage facility may not be spelled out in full.
For example, the decedent might abbreviate “Metro Storage” as just “Metro” in the check register or bank statement. If you see a regular payment and you don’t know what it was for, dig deeper and find out.
Stocks and Bonds
In this era of online accounts, most stocks and bonds are not held on paper anymore. Few stockholders have paper stock certificates at home so it would be easy to miss this asset if you didn’t know how to look for it.
In addition, as you don’t make monthly payments to the online brokerage accounts as you would a storage unit, going through a checkbook for clues won’t help.
If you have access to previous years’ tax returns, look for a Schedule D tax form in the last few tax returns. If a Schedule D exists and shows stock sales, then you know to look for a stock trade account.
If there is no Schedule D but you have access to tax return backup for previous years, look through the backup for statements from companies such as Ameritrade, Charles Schwab, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Vanguard, USAA Brokerage, Fidelity Investments, T. Rowe Price, ShareBuilder, Scottrade, eTrade, etc.
Tax return backup is the accountant’s term for all the documents whose numbers went into the preparation of your tax return.
This would include year-end mortgage statements, interest and dividends statements, car tag receipts, charitable donation receipts, investment account statements, and so forth.
Don’t assume that items such as end tables are just a couple of pieces of furniture to sell for $100 at a yard sale.
- Are they old enough to be antiques?
- Were they made by high-end furniture manufacturers?
You’d be amazed at how much a simple piece of furniture can be worth it if it is an antique.
The same goes for old kitchenware, jewelry, toys, books, knick-knacks, and other household items. It’s easy to overlook items of value if you’ve spent a lifetime looking at them.
Coin collections, gas station memorabilia, toys, antiques, and paintings all have the potential to be valuable. Even purses, shoes and clothing can be worth more than you’d expect if they are designer brands or very old.
Go to an antique shop and look around. This can give you an idea of what to look for. Do you see anything in the antique shop that looks similar to items in the estate home?
eBay and other auction houses are another good sources of information. For paintings, you can enter the name of the painter who signed the piece and sees if their paintings come up in the auctions.
For gas station memorabilia, enter the name of the gas station. Toys can be searched by manufacturer or toy name such as Barbie, Kewpie, Mattel, or Milton Bradley.
If you don’t have a name to search for, use a description such as “old train set” or “antique chess set” or “collectible doll.” Image searches can help you narrow it down further.
In spite of your efforts to find hidden assets, there could be money owed to the decedent that doesn’t show up in the paperwork you find. Unclaimed bank accounts, checks that were never cashed, security deposits and so forth will eventually get turned over to the state government as unclaimed money.
First, you need to make a list of every state the decedent lived in.
Then you can search each of those states for unclaimed money. Every state has its own department for unclaimed money which you can find on their website.
Look for the Department of Revenue or Taxation for that state, or the State Comptroller. Each state calls its money department by a different name but a web search should call it up easily.
You do NOT need to pay someone to do this search for you. Anyone can search for unclaimed money simply by going to the various states’ websites.
Alternately, you can search for “Ohio unclaimed money” or “Ohio unclaimed property” in a general search, substituting the name of your state for “Ohio.”
From the listings that come up, pick out the official government website. This will be the website where you renew your driver’s license and car tags, pay your homeowner taxes, and get your state income tax forms.
You’ll need to perform this search twice: once when you take over the estate, and again at least two years later to give the companies time to turn over accounts that you didn’t find initially.
Not everyone keeps their money in a bank or their valuables in a safe, especially those who’ve lived through the Great Depression where the stock market crashed and the banks failed. In addition, conspiracy theorists and those who do not trust the government may hide their assets in unique places.
Flip through every book for paper money, include collectible money, which may be hidden between the pages. As cliche as it sounds, look inside shoes and socks as well.
This includes shoes and socks that are stored in the basement or attic along with other clothing. Look through the pockets of all clothing.
Some people store money and valuables in the kitchen, so go through kitchen containers carefully even if they appear to contain sugar or rice.
Even the refrigerator or freezer can be a place to find hidden treasures, so be thorough.
Search under mattresses, stacks of towels, even in boxes that on first glance appear to hold household or personal items such as toiletries. Don’t take anything at face value, perform a thorough search.
Discovering the assets of an estate is much like a treasure hunt. You never know where an asset might be hidden and it’s your job to find them all.
Don’t discount allowing the beneficiaries of the estate to help you in your search. If there are multiple boxes of documents to search through, bring the beneficiaries together in a search party.
This may be a golden opportunity to spend time together in a manner that lessens the grief.
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