When music legend Prince died, he left no estate plan or will. The good news is that it has people talking about the importance of estate planning and the need for people to protect their wealth for heirs or for their legacy.
In many cases, when somebody dies without a plan, it leaves ordinary families to play detective while mourning loved ones who’d left them clueless. They are expected to grieve, but instead feel surprised, stressed, confused, time-crunched, frustrated and disappointed about the challenge of having to settle estates that were unorganized or shrouded in secrecy.
Among the things they face are funeral costs and hospital bills. One person who spoke with Financial Advisor on condition of anonymity, recently described the challenges of tracking down her deceased sister’s bills and caring for the sister’s dogs while trying to find them a new home. The sister, who’d had cancer, had mentioned a $400 monthly automatic debit in a semiconscious state, but never told family members where she held accounts.
It’s common for people who die to have left their family members in the dark about their finances, more common than financial advisors may realize. According to one estimate, 56% of Americans lack up-to-date estate plans (or so says the National Association of Estate Planners & Councils).
“There is no question there is a huge untapped need [for estate planning, which is more than doing a will],” said David English, vice chair of the Trust and Estate Division of the American Bar Association, in a commentary. “The rock star Prince is the latest example.”
Even in cases where there are estate plans, families will often have to rely on their sleuthing skills. They will have to look through the mail of their lost loved ones for bank, credit card, retirement and investment account statements. They also must look for bills for safe-deposit boxes. And yet finding snail mail is increasingly challenging as more people go paperless, and it’s often “practically impossible” to access digital assets—including email, files and electronic statements, according to Gail Cohen, chair and general trust counsel of Fiduciary Trust Company International.
“Even with our clients who’ve done a lot of planning and a lot of good work, we need to be sort of like detectives to make sure that we’ve got everything,” says Cohen, whose New York City-headquartered wealth management firm manages $16.4 billion in assets for 1,470 client relationships.
As an executor for estates, Fiduciary Trust monitors decedents’ mail for statements, but there are still challenges with electronic paper trails.
“Some digital providers like Yahoo and others will actually erase an account [without providing a password or access] when they find out somebody has died,” says Cohen. To remedy such problems, 31 states have introduced or enacted the revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, which allows a fiduciary, including an executor, to manage digital assets in accordance with a user’s estate plan.
Cohen notes that just about every financial institution is required to send paper correspondence at least once a year. That means families can expect 1099s to start arriving in January of the following year (if circumstances allow them to wait).
If a person who died hasn’t named an executor in his or her will, survivors can petition the court to become administrators for the estate. In the case of small estates (with “small” being defined differently in different states), an affidavit of next of kin may be filed in lieu of a petition for administration.
“One of the most important things to do is have a family tree,” says Cohen, who interned on the New York Surrogate’s Court while in law school and remembers it held special evidentiary hearings whenever someone claimed to be the sole heir to an estate. Fiduciary Trust tries to get family trees from all its clients.
Cohen says that after somebody dies, his or her family members should be prepared to dig up old family records. Sometimes really old ones. Imagine a case in which a mother filing to be the next of kin for her unmarried child is also required to provide the death certificate for the child’s father who died nearly 20 years earlier (a situation recalled by one family who spoke with Financial Advisor).