Come out, come out, where ever you are: Seeking hidden assets

Michelle Ungvarsky
Michele Ungvarsky of Estrada Law is an estate planning attorney. She can be reached at 556-2462.
Probate attorneys help their clients take estates through the probate process. Usually, those who have lost loved ones and are now dealing with the courts feel totally out of their element. Whether by choice or necessity, these individuals become the executor of the estate. A probate attorney helps to educate them and make their jobs less complicated through a combination of knowledge of probate law and experience working with many other families over the years.

An important, and often relatively difficult, step in the probate process is getting an accounting of the deceased’s assets. The executor also needs to track down any debts owed by the decedent and money owed to him or her. If there isn’t a clear estate plan in place with these types of lists already compiled, a probate attorney will probably direct the executor to start a search with the county where the deceased lived. The search can give access to titles, deeds, and even judgments against the individual.

Another source of information is the deceased’s mail. Throughout the first month or so after the death, the executor can watch the mail for bills to account for any debts owed by their loved one. Probate attorneys in will tell you, though, that the process can be very slow moving. For example, the executor will want to continue to monitor the deceased’s mail for up to a year, as evidence of insurance policies, dividends, and other assets may only come to light when annual reports or tax documentation is sent out once a year.

Taking a look at the individual’s checkbook or bank account records can also provide important clues regarding assets and debts. For example, if the decedent deposited a specific amount of money each month, it could be an indication that he or she has some form of income. The income could have been a job (which could have a retirement plan) or rental property (that needs to be included in the estate) or even a personal loan made to a third party that is being paid in installments.

Finally, the executor should also take a look through the deceased’s address book. Names of attorneys, insurance agents, and bankers/financial advisors should be noted and contacted. As these various assets are uncovered, the probate attorney will assist the executor in how to create an accurate accounting and will also be of help in submitting the documentation necessary to be in compliance with probate law.

Make it easy for your loved ones. Keep important documents with your estate plan documents. A list of records includes birth certificates for you and your spouse, marriage license, military separation papers, life insurance policies, retirement, IRA, 401(k) plan statements. Make sure your documents are in a place your executor and family know where to find them. Don’t make this a game of blind man’s bluff!