It is the responsibility of the executor to locate all assets of the decedent's estate, which can be harder than it sounds (also see Taking Inventory).
Common sources of information about asset existence include:
- The will
- A list the decedent prepared in advance
- The decedent's lawyer or tax accountant
- Saved financial statements and legal documents (filing cabinet, desk, safe deposit box)
- An online service the decedent set up in advance (the service will contact you)
- Statements you receive in the mail for the decedent
- Recent tax return (see Obtaining Past Tax Returns)
You can also go to your local probate court and have the clerk's office do a search for all records relating to decedent's assets. The results may be helpful if you know little about the estate, but they will likely not be complete, and there may be fees for the service.
Life Insurance Search
The National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) works with insurance regulators throughout the US, and offers a free tool to search for life insurance policies and annuity contracts of deceased family members or close relationships.
MIB (previously known as the Medical Information Bureau) is a non-profit organization that helps life insurance companies with their policy underwriting. MIB covers 99% of the life insurance policies issued in the US and Canada. They offer good general advice on locating policies, and for a small fee an executor can request a search of all policy underwriting activity (this won't tell you if any particular policies are payable, but it will help you in locating them).
In addition, you may want to ask the agent representing any other of the decedent's insurance policies, since people often use the same agent for multiple policies. Bank records can also sometimes reveal an annual or monthly recurring payment to a life insurance company. You can contact such insurance companies directly, and even if you don't have any evidence of a policy, you may want to contact some of the larger insurance companies just in case (see New York Life Lost Policy Finder and Lincoln Financial Group Lost Policy Inquiry for example).
Finally, if the decedent was employed, you may want to contact his or her employer to ask about any life insurance that may have been included in standard or optional employee benefits.
Retirement Benefits Search
It's possible that the deceased had a pension with death benefits. While you may find pension contact information in the Typical Sources above, you can also search for unclaimed pensions for free via the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, a US government agency. The National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits will separately allow you to also search for unclaimed retirement accounts such as 401Ks.
Digital assets such as cryptocurrency and NFTs can be difficult to find, as they can be stored on almost any digital media, and are often password-protected. Your best bet to finding any such assets are if the deceased left you detailed instructions, but if you believe the deceased had significant value in such assets, and you don't know where they are, you should be careful to examine computers, external hard drives, USB sticks, so-called digital wallets, and the like. It's also possible that the deceased may have stored such assets in an online exchange (there are hundreds of these, but only a few really popular ones). Cryptocurrency and NFTs suffer rampant theft, fraud, and even simple misplacement, so it can be quite difficult to pursue these if you don't know where to look. See also Managing Digital Assets.
Estates commonly collect refunds for unused portions of service contracts, overpaid taxes, etc. While you may not know about these owed refunds when you start managing an estate, they are still considered assets of the estate as of death, and should be included in gross value calculations (once you know about them). While such refunds are usually small, they can sometimes be significant (for example, a refund of an apartment lease deposit, or a federal income tax refund). Refunds are often automatically sent, but are sometimes offered only if you inquire, so it's worth thinking about whenever you cancel a service. And don't forget about cashback balances on credit cards, which are officially partial refunds of amounts spent.
When a financial institution loses contact with someone, it is required to notify the government, often turning over any such "abandoned" funds to the state. However, assets typically aren't considered abandoned until 3 years pass with no contact, so depending on when the decedent last contacted the institution, this won't necessarily help you right away.
If you are using EstateExec, its Search for Hidden Assets task will guide you to the appropriate state database. When searching these databases, you may need to know past addresses (at least the city), and alternate names (maiden name, nickname, etc.). These search services can be finicky, so you'll want to try all sorts of variants on the name, for example filling in the "last name" field with the last name followed by:
- (The) Estate of
- Payable on death
- No Beneficiary
- Unknown Heir
- Unk Heir
Paid Asset Search
If you are unsure that you have found all estate assets, have reason to believe there are other undiscovered assets, or simply want cover your bases, you can hire a service to search for financial assets such as bank accounts, brokerage accounts, life insurance policies, and so forth (see Task: Find and Claim Estate Assets).
You can also hire services that search through public records looking for real estate, business interests, vehicles, and so forth. These services are not necessarily cheap, so most executors choose not to use such services unless they believe there is a reasonable likelihood that other assets exist, but cannot locate them.