A key part of the executor’s job is to collect and safeguard all the property in the estate—including both physical objects and intangible assets such as investments, stocks, insurance policies, and copyrights. To track down the intangibles—and some physical items too—you’ll be looking for the paper or online records that serve as evidence of the assets.
You’ll probably find most of the paperwork you need in the deceased person’s desk or file cabinets. The deceased person’s tax returns, checkbook, and credit card statements are likely to yield the most information. Also look for bills and monthly or quarterly statements from brokers, banks, and mutual funds.
Remember that some people never use a paper checkbook or receive paper statements—their records are on their computer. You may need to dig up passwords to get access to online accounts. For example, bank and mortgage statement may come via email, and access to brokerage account records may be only through a password-protected website. If you don’t have passwords and can’t get to these records, you’ll have to contact the companies, explain the situation, and supply proof that you’re entitled to act on behalf of the deceased person.
When you’re looking at check records, keep an eye out for payments for:
You may also find deposits of income from employment, rental property, business interests, or investments.
Recent income tax returns are so useful because they show interest, dividend, and employment income and should give you a good picture of what investments the deceased person owned. All of this information will be crucial when it’s time to file the final tax return for the deceased person, because you must document income and expenses.
As you go through tax returns for the past few years, keep an eye out for what comes in and goes out. If one year’s return shows income from an investment but the next one’s doesn’t, find out what happened.
The investment may have been sold—but maybe not. Millions of dollars’ worth of stocks end up unclaimed by the people who should inherit them.
Documents to Look For
|Annuity||Policy document, premium statements (paper or email), cancelled checks|
|Bank account, CD||Account statements, checkbook, passbook, and evidence of online banking|
|Boat||Title and registration documents|
|Small business interests||Stock certificates, shareholder agreements, limited liability company member agreements, partnership agreements, contracts or franchise agreements; trademark registration issued by U.S. Patent & Trademark Office|
|Copyright||Contracts, registration documents issued by U.S. Copyright Office (copyrights don’t have to be registered, but it’s still common)|
|Debt owed to the deceased||Promissory note|
|Life insurance||Premium statements (paper or email), cancelled checks|
|Limited partnership investment interest||Statements from partnership|
|Money market fund||Statements (paper or email) from broker (possibly the same statement that lists securities)|
|Motor vehicle||Title or registration document (might be in the vehicle)|
|Patent||Patent issued by U.S. Patent & Trademark Office|
|Precious metals||Statement from company from which metals were bought|
|Real estate||Deed, divorce settlement agreement, prenuptial agreement, property tax statements, mortgage statements, checks from tenants|
|Retirement account||Statements (paper or email) from account custodian|
|Stocks or bonds; mutual funds||Mutual fund or brokerage account statements (paper or email); rarely, stock certificates or bonds themselves|
|Stock options||Option papers issued by company|