Sudden Death of Parent...Nobody Know Who the Trustee Is
September 15, 2020 4:38 PM   Subscribe

My Dad died unexpectedly leaving quite a bit of unfinished business. How do I find out if or where his trust or will is so I can pick up and care of his property for the family etc?

I'll keep this short. We're all going through a lot these days so no need for much sympathy or condolences. Consider the sympathy mutual.

My Dad passed away on 9/1 after a kind of freak accident in his home. Because of visitation restrictions at the hospital and because he apparently wasn't aided in answering his cell or bedside phones, we had very little communication. Aside from sending our love and assurances there was nothing more nor time for it.

Now fifteen days later I'm trying to deal with his assets, family etc and no one has contacted me regarding his estate. He now has a mechanics lien on his house for an unpaid bill (this was a problem before he passed) and I want to take care of it ASAP. He left no instructions other than he wanted my sister and I to rent out his house and that he wanted his ashes spread in the Pacific. He was a career Navy man.

Now, how do I find out who to contact to find out how to settle his accounts? I believe he had a trust, but he didn't tell me directly, he only mentioned the name of the firm to me on occasion. I called them and they are totally giving me the run around which, I guess, is what they're supposed to do to protect assets.

FWIW, I'm his only surviving son and from what I know, confidant. What to do?
posted by snsranch to Law & Government (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Did your dad have a lawyer, and if so, do you know the name of that person? Get in touch with that person, if you know who they are. If not, find an estate attorney in his town/state. Do you have a death certificate? You might also reach out to the VA. What you need to find out is if he had a will and who the executor is, I think.
posted by bluedaisy at 4:52 PM on September 15

If he had a will and trust in California, then I am guessing that like mine, the will and trust documents are in a binder in his house, or maybe a safe deposit box. No one is going to contact you unless he named someone else to be the successor trustee and gave them a copy of the certificate of trust (as we were instructed to do by our lawyer). Hopefully that binder also includes a full and up to date list of financial accounts. If not you will need to start digging through paperwork to see if there are account statements.

If you know where he banked you can try contacting them and sending them the death certificate. If he put his bank accounts in the trust they should have the successor trustee on file and if that is you, they may be able to give you access without any other documentation. Same with any of his retirement accounts or life insurance (aka named beneficiary accounts).
posted by muddgirl at 4:53 PM on September 15 [1 favorite]

I'm very sorry that you have to go through all this. There may be some unclearness in your post, which is completely understandable under the circumstances.

First, hire an estate lawyer. Preferably the lawyer will represent the estate as things move forward, or may just advise you personally. The lawyer will be able to answer all your questions.

In the meantime, you say that no one has contacted you regarding the estate. You mention a sister and other family. It sounds like you have been in touch with them. Are you expecting to hear from someone else?

Ordinarily most of your questions will be answered if you just go through his records at home. Then talk to your lawyer about what you have found.

Regarding the mechanic's lien, that's the least of your worries. Put it on the back burner.

I'm sure you'll find clarity very soon. Get yourself a lawyer to help with this.
posted by JimN2TAW at 4:56 PM on September 15 [1 favorite]

Hey there -- this is a pain! This kind of happened to me. Do you live in the area?

If you live in the area the best thing to do is go to the house and dig through paperwork. Best things to look for: tax forms, email (if you have access) and paper files that would have records. If you can even be sure you are calling the proper trust company you can talk to someone who will help you work it out. There's a lot of "Yes I am who I said I am" parts to this, but no one should give you the runaround if you're an heir. Things I would try

- Calling his bank if you know which one he is and see if you or your sister are also on the accounts
- Likewise maybe a safe deposit box
- Tracking down whether there is a will is #1 thing and if so then things can be kind of put on hold in a way. The "estate" will then own all your dad's things and you can tell everyone (creditors etc) that they need to chill.

In general, no one will contact you. But also no one should be putting you off either. The script is "My father died, me and my sister are the next of kin. I have a death certificate (if you don't, get one by talking to the hospital). How do I work through this?" Once you feel you have at least found the documentation you need to find to get started then yes, in most cases you will work with a lawyer. If you have questions about death certificates, feel free to call ColdChef (I can DM you his number if you want) and he can talk you through how this process will likely work.
posted by jessamyn at 4:59 PM on September 15 [15 favorites]

I recently served as the successor trustee to my mother's trust, and everything was known and in place. It was still a lot of tedium. You'll need copies of the death certificate. I got mine from the funeral home, but you can request them from the county recorder's office. Get 10. You won't think you'll need them all, but you will. Scan one into the computer so that you can send it electronically, which you will probably do.

As everyone else says, tell the firm your father is deceased and you need verification of a trust/living will. There definitely _should_ have been a paper copy in his effects, whether that's at home or in a safe deposit box. If you know who he banked with, call the branch manager and ask for help. They'll want a death certificate.

jessamyn has it covered. Her answer is great. Once you find a will you can proceed. Lawyer up; it's worth it, and the estate pays for it.
posted by blob at 5:10 PM on September 15 [1 favorite]

Sounds like you don't even know who the executor is in this case, is that right? That's the person who is in charge (ideally) of getting this whole ball rolling and enlisting appropriate help. Is it you? A laywer your dad named? Someone else? No one? All of these are possible. A lawyer wlll certainly help find the answer, because it makes all the difference between you helping a professional as needed and you being the one who has to, at minimum, locate and hire the professional.
posted by wnissen at 5:26 PM on September 15

Hi. Thanks guys. My dad was living here but his main residence was in the East. So I guess I'll have to go there and check out his documents. That actually makes the most sense. He had the same bank for most of his life too, so I'll check there. He was a smart guy and I feel like he and I were both sad and frustrated with his sudden passing.

Thanks again. I actually feel a little better now.
posted by snsranch at 5:32 PM on September 15 [9 favorites]

Depending on which state your dad lived in, if there is no will and (if he died intestate), you will want to look into filing to get a small estate affidavit. These can also be called by a longer name: Affidavit for Collection of Personal Property. It's a document that will let you and/or your sister deal with accessing funds that might considered an "inheritance" when the decedent did not leave a will.

The rest of the advice you got looks good. Also, ditto on the multiple copies of the death certificate, which you'll need not only for "official" legal and financial things, but annoying things like canceling a cell phone account. You'll be amazed at the annoyingly pesky low-rent companies that won't let you send a digital or photocopy version.

As a professional organizer, I encourage clients to check desk drawers and jewelry boxes for tiny, flat envelopes about 1" x 2" which are easily missed, but contain safe deposit keys. The keys generally don't provide a clue to the bank's location/identity, but the envelopes often do.

In general, the mortuary service (or hospital) will have notified Social Security, making it easier for you to contact the VA, which will send you a pile of forms. If he was in the NAVY during a declared wartime period (and even if not) he will likely have had some kind of VA-related insurance policy. Often, these have been "paid up" many decades prior and forgotten about, so if you can find his DD-214 (military separation papers), it will have essential info that may help you find such policies.

Finally, over the course of time, be sure to check his state's unclaimed property division (as well as the divisions for any other states in which he lived), as insurance policies, utility deposits, and other funds (like tiny, seen-as-abandoned savings/checking accounts) may be turned over, and once you establish your relationship (through a will or small estate affidavit) it will be easier to access these funds.

Unless your dad was currently married (in which case, his spouse would be notified), the only "notifications" are likely to come directly to his address, from Social Security stating that there will be no more checks, and from the VA and/or NAVY regarding the cessation of any ongoing pension or benefits.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 5:34 PM on September 15 [6 favorites]

Don’t get just ten death certificates- get at least two dozen. They are a pain to get later, but it’s not more effort, and only a minor cost, to get a whole stack right now.
posted by rockindata at 6:33 PM on September 15 [4 favorites]

I don't understand why the trust firm is giving you a run-around. They represent your father's interest. If he is dead, then dealing the (correct) replacement trustee is also part of their job. While they shouldn't be giving you any detailed information I would think that if you said "My father died (see obituary posted here or call this funeral home) Before he died, he told me that you were the firm to contact. I would like to confirm if you were involved in my father's estate planning and, if so, if you could please help us identify who is the successor trustee on his trust and executor of his will." If they won't confirm, see if you can talk to a more senior person.
posted by metahawk at 11:09 PM on September 15 [2 favorites]

Don't assume there is a trust.

In many states the testator (your father) can deposit his signed will with the local probate court (might be "surrogate's court" in the northeast). On his death it will be either a fully public record or at least disclosable to the next of kin, even if they are not named as beneficiaries.
posted by yclipse at 6:23 AM on September 16 [1 favorite]

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