Q: In continuing the series of columns on mistakes made by people attempting to put their affairs in order, this column discusses oversights made by even the most thorough peopleŃthe failure to make asset lists and to consolidate the location of documents.
A: In addition to doing a Will and a Durable Power of Attorney, the construction of an asset list makes the job of those left behind so much easier. You know everything you have, but your Personal Representative probably does not. In fact, if one had to choose between doing a Will or an asset list, I would advise that a person do the asset list for the simple reason that even without a Will, as the deceased usually desires, the deceasedŐs property passes to the deceasedŐs spouse by the intestate laws, or if the deceasedŐs spouse has also passed away, the property then passes equally to the deceasedŐs children. But the asset list is the blueprint for easy and quick estate settlement.
A significant part of the time and effort used to settle an estate is spent on locating assets. In fact at the estate closing, I often have the feeling that there are still assets out there that we did not locate. And several times a year, I have to reopen estates when an asset unexpectedly pops up. To minimize this, the asset list should be a complete listing of everything that is possessed. Often such things as tax lien certificates, retained mineral rights, co-op patronage dividends, various deposit benefits such as small life insurance policies on credit cards, etc., go unnoticed, but everything needs to be listed.
Not only should the asset list be as complete as possible, but it should also include the names of the various entities (such as banks, insurance companies, etc.) and identification numbers of the assets. Besides being a checklist, such information is very helpful in documenting the existence of assets if the original documents cannot be located.
I would also suggest expanding the list to include key people that might need to be consulted, such as the attorney, the accountant, financial advisor, a benefits person at work, etc. Additionally, listing the Will beneficiariesŐ names, addresses, and telephone numbers can be very helpful. Finally, the list needs to be updated, preferably as matters change, but at least annually (review your estate documents at a fixed time every year, perhaps around tax time).
Often, people will write a letter or memorandum to a fiduciary (such as a personal representative or trustee) expressing thoughts and feelings about how the fiduciary should do his or her job. Although not binding, I have never met a fiduciary who did not appreciate such communication, since the fiduciary wants to perform the job according to the desires of the deceased.
The next very important oversight is not keeping documents organized. Often in settling estates, things such as car titles, insurance policies, estate documents, deeds, and stocks are found scattered around the house. Keeping such material together means that it can be safeguarded and found. A home safe or fire box is fine. However, in Colorado do not be afraid of a safe deposit box at a bank, as long as there is a back-up name on the signature access card. This ensures not only that important documents will be kept together, but also that the Personal Representative can access these documents. In addition to the signature access card, the location of safe keys, knowledge of safe combinations, and access codes (for information stored in the computer) are critical pieces of information for your Personal Representative.
Over the years I have had to hire safe-crackers, blow open safes, use a metal detector in back yards, and obtain court orders in order to locate and to access assets and documents. A little planning would have prevented the need for all those activities.
Finally, concerning personal property, if you want certain things to go to certain people, be sure you have authority in your Will to make a list on a separate sheet of paper. Oral statements and labels on things are not legally binding. A properly executed list is still needed.
Thus, if you have not done so, start to organize your estate documents. At first it might seem hard and even a bit overwhelming. But once done, it becomes easy to update as needed.