Part Four — Key Documents to Locate and Assemble
In three recent posts I’ve reviewed pertinent issues and tasks requiring prompt attention and action when a loved one passes. Quickly finding and organizing the important documents governing or affecting end-of-life issues and processes is really important. One reason is that after a loved one dies, confusion and pressure can descend, making it very easy to lose, discard or overlook papers as family members hurry to get through the process of winding up a loved one’s life affairs.
Obviously it’s best to familiarize yourself with these important documents with your loved one’s participation and direction before they die. The orderly gathering and organizing of such documents before death is what most strive for, but sometimes life’s surprising end or other factors make that impossible.
The documents (important papers) you are particularly concerned with include those pertaining to or governing:
- Property interests (deeds, mortgages, titles, stock certificates, etc.).
- Contract rights and duties.
- Social security.
- Advance directives (wills, living wills, powers of attorney)
- Trusts, estate plans.
- Military service.
- Pension and compensation rights.
- Life insurance.
- Business interests.
- Financial records.
- Safe deposit box(s).
- Funeral, memorial, and cemetery arrangements.
Each of these document types contains information that could be important or essential to funeral arrangements, estate administration, and asset transfer and management after death.
Residence — So, if you’re responsible for managing your loved one’s affairs after death, and don’t know where to find papers and documents like these, your first stop is your loved one’s residence(s). Search the logical places such papers may be kept first (like safes, strong boxes, file cabinets and boxes, organizers, day planners, journals, genealogy records, brief cases, bureaus, dressers, kitchen drawers, closets, vehicles, etc.) and do it carefully (meticulously) so nothing is overlooked—this is not something you should do in a hurry. Be thorough and creative to ensure you’ve considered all possible places (not just likely or logical places) in which such information may be found. Use what you know about your lost loved one’s habits, practices, and personality to anticipate likely locations.
Computer(s) — Carefully review any computers your loved one used—they may contain important document files. Remember to also check any cloud-storage or estate-document-management accounts. These days, you may not be looking for just paper records, but digital documents or scanned images of original signed documents. And they may not be on the computer or handheld device itself, but stored online. Review all document files and email records, which can reveal communications about such important documents. Also, don't just look for the documents themselves, but watch for documents that may contain instructions or clues on the location or disposition of important papers. The same review should be conducted in any smart phone your loved one used (they retain emails, texts, digital notes, files, recordings, and images too, or may contain links to remotely stored documents).
Probate Court — Second, check with the probate court in the county in which your loved lived and ask if they allow the deposit of wills. Some courts do and some courts don’t. If yours does, search the court’s record and verify whether your loved one deposited a will there. If so, it may be “deemed” the last will under applicable law, superseding any other non-deposited wills (which will governs depends on applicable law).
Public Records — Third, check with county recorders’ and state DMV offices to ascertain if any property is titled in your loved one’s name. They can provide you with copies of these public records.
Financial and Professional — Fourth, inquire with any banking or financial institutions, accountants, and lawyers with whom your loved one did business and ask what estate, financial, account, or asset records they may hold. If these parties don’t know you they may ask you to submit a formal request for release by signing appropriate release forms and providing evidence of your authority (e.g., a letter of instruction as next of kin or executor). Secure the release of these records and documents by and formally requeshave in their custody.
Business Associations — Fifth, inquire with any partners, business associates, employers, pension administrators, unions or professional association that may have had a role in controlling or keeping records of your loved one’s property or contract rights. These parties may also ask that you follow their protocol for release of such documents.
Close Friends — Finally, ask your loved one’s close friends if they have any knowledge of where such information is stored. They may be a buffet of information.
This list is not exhaustive, but does provide you with some primary ideas for locating documents and papers essential to wisely managing your loved one’s end-of-life issues and affairs. Don’t be shy or timid about this process. It’s up to you to get it done right.