How to Track Down Estate Assets In NYC
In most estate administration proceedings, there typically is no need to hire an asset search company to find assets belonging to the decedent. Retaining the services of an official company should be a means of last resort. Information gained though family members and friends of the decedent about their possessions can come in hand. For example, in one NY probate matter my office handled, the beneficiaries of the will were well aware of the decedent’s valuable antique car collection. However, the will failed to specify the location where the vehicles were kept. After he died, the cars were nowhere to be found – that is, until the estate executor ran into a neighbor of the decedent. The neighbor recalled a conversation he had with the decedent and the name of the garage with the avid collection. When family and friends lack information, consider the following tips on tracking down all assets belonging to the estate.
Read the Mail
The first step in in ascertaining estate assets is to search the decedent’s home. Despite all federal laws against opening someone else’s mail, this is the time when you are permitted to open the decedent’s mail if your purpose is to administer the estate. The decedent’s mail can provide a wealth of information such as banking information, brokerage accounts, and life insurance policies to name a few. If you come across bank statements, consider yourself way ahead. Accounts numbers and balances are noted in bank statements. Statements are also helpful in determining whether any of the accounts had a designated beneficiary. If the statement reflects the name of the decedent and the name someone else, consider the account as joint or with a beneficiary. In the event the joint account holder or beneficiary is alive, the bank account does not pass to the estate. Instead, it goes directly to the individual.
By reading the mail, you may find property tax bills and homeowner insurance information for real estate owned by the decedent during his or her life. You may come across vehicle information such as registration notices and premiums due on auto insurance. Checking the mail may reveal monthly account statements for retirement plans, brokerage accounts and life insurance policies. Make sure to check bank statements for monthly automatic debits for life insurance payments and home insurance.
If you are not sure whether you found all bank information, write a letter to each local bank asking whether their institution holds any accounts of the deceased. The letter should include the decedent’s social security number and the date of the death, along with the official Surrogate Court documents appointing you as administrator or executor of the estate. If the decedent had a vacation home, repeat this process with the local banks nearby.
Check Safe Deposit Box
Finding and searching through the decedent’s safe deposit box (if there is one) is a vital step in finding valuables belonging to the estate. Whether the decedent has a safe deposit box and where it’s held is a conversation best to be had during the person’s life. If it is too late to have this chat due to death, do not fret.
When opening a safe deposit box, most people opt for the bank where they have an existing account or somewhere near their home. If you were lucky to find bank statements in the home or by opening the mail, inquire with that bank first. You may also find a record of the box amongst the decedent’s documents, such as an annual or monthly bill for the safety deposit box or a notation in his or her income tax return (Schedule A). If there is no record of the box in the decedent’s home or mail, you can always pay a visit to the branch directly. Take note that the bank will not release any information unless you have been appointed by Surrogate Court as the administrator or executor of the estate. Once the bank sees proof of your appointment, they will gladly provide you with any information they have on file.
After you find the box, you may encounter some difficulty opening it. If you cannot find the key or combination to the box, the bank can get someone to drill the lock, typically for a fee. As long as you have the letters of administration (no will) or letters testamentary (will) showing your appointment as administrator or executor of the estate or a court order allowing you access to the box, the bank should be very helpful in allowing you entry to the contents.
Review Prior Tax Returns
Reviewing the decedent’s tax returns can quickly gain you snapshot of their financial situation. Income tax returns can provide a mountain of information such as income sources, rental proceeds, stock dividends, business interests, and addresses of real property. Check folders in the home for copies of tax returns, and other documents such as W2 and 1099 forms. The returns may reveal interest bearing accounts and dividend paying stocks, which now belong to the estate. The returns may report retirement income and mortgage balances. Depending on the amount of detail, you can acquire a fairly clear picture of the decedent’s financial affairs from the tax return alone. If a search of the home reveals no tax returns, you can obtain copies directly from the IRS. Just as the bank, the IRS will require proof of your appointment as executor or administrator of the estate before releasing any information.
Check with the New York State Office of Unclaimed Funds
If a considerable time has passed since the decedent’s death, it is a good idea to run a search of the decedent’s name on NYS Unclaimed Funds website. Many times banks close accounts and transfer the balances to NYS Unclaimed Funds if no claim is made to the funds within a certain amount of time. This office will not release any information such as the balance of the account without an estate being opened first. An administrator or executor has to be appointed before Unclaimed Funds will issue a check or disclose any information.
We are located on 85 Broad Street 18th Floor New York, NY 10004. Contact us at (646) 233-0826 if you have a probate or estate matter that requires attention.