A veritable plethora of families have gone through the agonizing search for assets after the death of a loved one. If you find yourself among them, then this column is for you. (Hint: your ability to legally obtain information may depend upon you being appointed by a court as the decedent’s estate representative (executor or administrator). Without the blessing of the probate court, you may be so overly- zealous in your search that you end up being sued or facing criminal charges.)
Where To Find Information On Your Loved One’s Assets
Home, Work, and Storage Units
Search for information in obvious places. The decedent’s home, specifically the desk, safe, file cabinets, closets, garage, basement, or attic, should be prioritized. Second is the decedent’s storage unit, since if rental fees are not paid, the stored property could be sold. Third is the decedent’s office at his or her place of employment. Fourth is the safe deposit box.
Court files, county deed records, and the Secretary of State business records will show the decedent’s real property, pending lawsuits, assumed names and interests in closely held businesses.
Search the State unclaimed property website for each state in which the decedent lived or could have had a business interest. That will show property that was unclaimed and turned over to the State.
Contact the decedent’s former employer to find unpaid benefits, life-insurance policies, or retirement accounts the decedent had through the employer.
Insurance, Credit Report and Tax Returns
Submit the online request form with the Texas Department of Insurance to find information about a missing life-insurance policy or annuity contract.
Obtain the Decedent’s credit report. That should show open and closed accounts, with the bonus of identifying most debts.
Review the Decedent’s last 5 years of tax returns. This will show partnership interests, sources of income, trust distributions, and more.
Finances and Benefits
Search for refunds due on prepaid items. Tuition, club memberships, and credit-card memberships are good examples.
Review the decedent’s Social Security and VA death benefits.
Devices & Digital Assets
Look at the Decedent’s computer, email account and phone. Before you do that, however, you should consider the Federal Computer Fraud & Abuse Act, which makes it a crime to intentionally access and obtain information from a protected computer without authorization. On the state level, don’t forget to look at Texas Penal Code Chapter 33 and Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code Section 143.001. Those address criminal and civil penalties for similar actions.
Search for digital assets. Use the Texas Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets to obtain information. Look also at directions given in any online tools, terms of service agreements, and the decedent’s will.
Conduct the same search for information regarding the decedent’s spouse. In Texas, every asset is presumed to be community property. Thus, the decedent had an undivided one-half interest in the assets titled only in the spouse’s name. (That little nugget about the decedent’s interest in property held solely in the surviving spouse’s name often comes as an unpleasant surprise to the surviving spouse.)
Search for non-marital property that was jointly owned by decedent and another person. A lot of people have a partnership with a third party, and the property is held in the name of the partnership or in the name of the third party.
If all this sounds like a lot of work, that is because it is. Prioritize, organize, delegate, but get it done. If you run into pushbacks, sic your probate attorney on them.
We litigators live for the thrill of the hunt.
Hammerle Finley Can Help With Your Estate Planning Needs
Virginia Hammerle is an accredited estate planner and represents clients in estate planning, probate, guardianship and contested litigation. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column contains general information only and does not constitute legal advice.