Trash Can Treasure Hunt

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Managing someone else’s business when they die or become disabled can take you on a scavenger hunt. You may not know what you need to find or where to find it. To make a tough job worse, privacy laws severely limit the ability of banks and other financial institutions to share missing pieces of the puzzle.

Let’s say that “Bob” dies suddenly, leaving no information about his assets or financial affairs. If Bob dies and you are the person who will be managing the estate, your first priority should be to attend the funeral, honor Bob, and encourage his family. Some people feel pressure to settle all issues before the funeral day ends, but most issues are not so time sensitive. You and the rest of the family should take an emotional break and catch your breath – the estate business can wait. Even if Bob has not filed his income tax return by the first full week of April, it is unlikely that you will overcome his procrastination, so don’t sweat it.

Now imagine that Bob has survived a severely debilitating stroke, timing may be more urgent than if he had died, but the job still resembles managing a deceased person’s estate. You still need to find out who has authority to act and what needs to be done (like filing tax returns and paying income taxes). Hopefully, Bob left a power of attorney, last will and testament, or other estate plan records that will help you answer those questions.

Regardless of whether Bob is dead or disabled, you will need to find his estate plan documents and records of his assets and financial obligations. You may have keys to Bob’s house and be able to search the house for information, but you may be trespassing if you enter the house without lawful authority. Unless Bob authorized you to act with a power of attorney (assuming he is still alive), you may need your lawyer to petition the probate court for guardianship. If Bob is dead, you may need a probate court order to enter the house. Before you waste time and bog down in controversy, hire a reputable trust and estate lawyer to help you plan and carry out the work.

Once you gain access to Bob’s house, imagine all the places where Bob could store important papers. You may find them in a kitchen drawer, the freezer, a gun safe, or any other hiding places in the house, but keys or lockbox information may signal that Bob stored important papers and small possessions in a bank safety deposit box. Look for clues that identify Bob’s accountant, banks, and other financial institutions, such as utility bills, bank and credit card statements, loan payment books, etc. Those clues may help you understand how Bob conducted his business and may lead to more information about Bob’s estate plan.

Look for addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses of Bob’s closest family members and friends. This may include spouse, children (natural and adopted), grandchildren, brothers, sisters, parents, and in some cases, nieces and nephews. Many people find it helpful to chart Bob’s “family tree.” If Bob left family members out of his estate plan, you’ll still need contact information for those people in case they are entitled to court notices.

Coordinate closely with your lawyer’s paralegal staff. They routinely gather information and help solve problems  that may stump novices. You can save tremendous time by sharing with them everything that you are doing rely on their training and experience to help you cut to the chase.

Reconstructing someone else’s personal business can be a daunting task. You never know what troubling surprises and secrets may spring out of Bob’s closet or trash can. However, these starting points and a skilled trust and estate lawyer can make your scavenger hunt easier and less stressful.

Jeff R. Hawkins and Jennifer J. Hawkins are Trust & Estate Specialty Board Certified Indiana Trust & Estate Lawyers and active members of the Indiana State Bar Association and National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. Both lawyers are admitted to practice law in Indiana, and Jeff Hawkins is admitted to practice law in Illinois. Jeff is also a registered civil mediator, a Fellow of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the Indiana Bar Foundation;  a member of the Illinois State Bar Association and the Indiana Association of Mediators; and he was the 2014-15 President of the Indiana State Bar Association.

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