Our estate attorneys and paralegals have administered a lot of estates over their careers. Here are a few “surprise assets” they have encountered over the years.
What assets are most often forgotten or unknown by the family?
“Frequent flyers often accumulate a substantial amount of airline miles. These miles are often lost at death but some airlines allow for the unused miles. It is, however, important for the frequent flyer to plan ahead to ensure the ability to transfer the unused miles. Some airlines require that the frequent-flyer make a specific bequest of the airline miles in their will.”—Deborah L. Anderson
“I have seen furniture, artwork, rugs and other decorative items that family members thought were junk turn out to be collectibles worth a few thousand dollars. If you’re unsure of the value, ask an appraiser for an informal opinion. If the item is valuable, then request a formal appraisal for estate tax purposes. And remember, the cost of an appraisal is a deductible estate expense.”—Alexandra Crean
“When doing a search on a state’s abandoned property website, uncashed dividend checks will sometimes appear. This may indicate that there are paper stock certificates still in existence. These often will have been lost and need to be replaced before the shares can be claimed. It is preferable, to the extent that you can, to hold all stock in a brokerage account to eliminate the process and cost of claiming abandoned property and replacing lost certificates.”—Sally A. Dabrowski
“A decedent’s son emptied out the contents of a drawer in his father’s house, only to find a handgun among the contents. To say he was quite shocked is an understatement. He called me immediately and was extremely agitated. He had no idea that his father owned a handgun and didn’t know what to do. I advised him to call the local police department for assistance with the disposal of the gun and to be sure to get a receipt.”—Mary Ford
“When cleaning out the decedent’s home, family members may find paper stock certificates stuffed in drawers, embedded within piles of papers and hidden in other odd locations. Shares of stock issued as stock splits often get ‘squirreled away’ in this fashion. Many times the certificates are still in their original mailing envelopes. If a cursory review of the decedent’s papers is done, these stock certificates might get overlooked, which would then force the personal representative to report the certificate lost and pay the replacement fee, which is based on the current market value of the shares.”—Evelyn V. Moreno
“When cleaning out a loved one’s home, multiple clients have found life insurance policies purchased decades ago by the decedent’s parents when the decedent was a minor or young adult. The beneficiary designations are outdated as they often list the decedent’s parents, who are also deceased. Without such diligent searches, these policies may have never been collected. If you know of a life insurance policy or policies insuring your life, make sure your executor does as well and check the beneficiary designation.”—Mary-Benham B. Nygren
“If an executor is uncertain where a decedent held bank or investment accounts, it is a good idea to send letters to the institutions in close proximity to the decedent’s residence requesting a review of their records to determine if the decedent held an account or accounts with them. The search can also reveal additional accounts at institutions known to have assets belonging to the decedent, like passbook savings accounts or a safe deposit box. It is also a good idea to send search requests to institutions near a decedent’s vacation home as an account may have been established for convenience during visits.”—Kerri L. Painting
“When a client has a life insurance policy (i.e., Met Life, Prudential, John Hancock), it is always a good idea to check with the stock transfer agent to determine if there are any shares of stock that were issued when the life insurance companies demutualized. Often times, the owner was never aware that shares of stock were issued in their name. Checking for shares is a relatively easy task—you can call the automated telephone line and enter a social security number to search for an account.”—Nicole A. Place