Legal, Regulatory, and Privacy Issues

How to check whether your parents left you an inheritance


Emotions, time and distance can cloud memories, so if you think you may be missing out on an inheritance, go for the records.

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Question for the expertDear New Frugal You,
My dad died recently. We weren’t very close. Years ago before she passed, my mom said that he had something that he wanted me to inherit, but I have no idea what it might be. I don’t even know if he had a will. I’m the only living relative. Is there some way to find out if he left me something? — Tara

Answer for the expert

Dear Tara,
Sorry to hear about your dad. Even if you weren’t close, it can still hurt to lose a parent.

Your first stop should be the courthouse in the county where your dad resided. If an executor has been assigned to his estate, they’ll have a record of it. They’ll also be able to tell you how to contact the executor.

If no one has been assigned, you can apply to the court to become the executor. If you’re the only living relative, it’s likely that they will honor your request. Be prepared to provide some proof of your relationship. Your birth certificate naming your dad as your father should suffice.

If you do become the executor — sometimes called an executrix, administrator or personal representative — you’ll have access to your father’s financial records. But it will also mean that you’re responsible for closing out his affairs. That will include collecting all assets, paying appropriate debts, tax returns and distribution of any inheritances.

Depending on your relationship, you could decide that the chance of locating a specific inheritance isn’t worth the work of managing the estate. In that case, an executor will be assigned. You’ll still receive any inheritance due you. But the odds of finding a specific item decrease. You might know someone personally who would help find the inheritance your mother mentioned that an executor from outside the family would not.

I hope your dad kept his financial records organized. Ideally, he left a notebook listing his accounts, important assets and papers. In many cases that doesn’t happen. But you might find a desk or file cabinet where he kept statements and other financial papers.

If you don’t find papers gathered in one place the job becomes much harder. Combing through financial records to find assets and debts isn’t easy or pretty.

You’ll start by collecting the mail looking for statements and bills. Even inactive accounts will generate a statement periodically, often quarterly.

Look for any record of a safe deposit box. You might find a bill for the rental or a key. If you think that he had one, but can’t find any evidence, try contacting his bank. Many people keep their safe deposit boxes where they do their banking.

Contact any of your dad’s former employers. Not only could they know of any pensions or retirement plans, but they might be able to help you contact your dad’s co-workers. It’s also possible that he had some employer-purchased life insurance.

Look for any other organizations that your dad might have belonged to. Was he a member of any churches, lodges or clubs? Speaking with his friends could provide leads to otherwise hidden assets.

You’ll also want to check state unclaimed property lists in every state where your father lived. States collect unclaimed deposits and accounts and hold them.

There’s no way to guarantee that you’ll find everything that your father owned. At some point you’ll need to decide that you’ve done your best and call off the hunt.

Your situation is a good lesson for all of us. It’s important to have someone lined up to handle your affairs after you die. That’s true even if you’re a young person. They don’t need to know all your financial affairs now — just that you’d like them to be your executor and where to find a listing of your accounts, safe deposit boxes, assets, debts and your will.

Tara, I hope that you’re able to find the inheritance your mother mentioned, and that you can discover some happy memories, as well.

See related: Finding an inheritance, After debt judgment, inheritance may be at risk

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