Brother died unexpectedly. Special challenges in sorting his affairs
October 11, 2020 10:00 AM   Subscribe

My brother died suddenly, and I'm the executor of his will. My brother had some mental health issues, and we (the family) think he may have hidden stashes containing guns, cash, and maybe gold or other valuables. We've spent two weeks looking and have found almost nothing.

My 60-year-old brother had a heart attack and died alone. He lived out in the country in a house that he had mostly built himself over a period of years. My brother had a long history of eccentric behavior. He was paranoid, had no close friends, and trusted no-one, including his relatives. He was a prepper, a hoarder, and a gun enthusiast. I'm the executor his will. The will is generic and simply assigns all assets to our 92-year-old mother.

My brother worked very hard for most of his life, lived frugally, and retired a few years ago. We (the family) also know that he traded stocks and possibly made other investments. Some relatives and I have been going through his possessions. We found two guns, but we think he probably had a much larger cache hidden somewhere. We also found some bank statements for his checking account and an IRA account -- but nothing related to stocks or other investments. We also found a small safe that was out in the open. A locksmith drilled it for us. It contained a few old coins and memorabilia, but nothing of any real value, and no legal documents. The safe might have been a "honeypot" designed to fool potential intruders.

My brother was quite intelligent and good with tools, and we think he may have built secret compartments or even whole rooms in his house. It's also possible that he created hiding places somewhere else on his sizable property, which includes a few acres of woods.

It's difficult to conduct a thorough search because his house is a disaster. He was a hoarder, and his house is filled with many crates of canned food, cases of pasta, large buckets of rice, old pieces of scrap wood, power tools, broken furniture, etc. He has a multi-car garage and quite a sizable barn that together hold multiple cars, a pickup truck, several tractors, other farm equipment, and a boat (most of the vehicles are in need of repairs). We haven't been able to find the titles to anything.

I was able to gain access to his computer, but I found nothing of any significance. I'm currently waiting for paperwork that would grant me access to his email account, but I'm not confident that I'll find anything in the account, either.

So I'm looking for any advice on how to proceed. I don't know if there's some kind of radar or sonar equipment that can be used to search for secret compartments, embedded safes, or whole rooms behind the walls or buried in the ground. I'm also wondering if there are procedures to find out if my brother had accounts with brokerage houses, like Charles Schwab or Ameritrade. I suppose we may have to hire a private investigator, though that in itself would pose challenges, especially with respect to finding an investigator who is both competent and trustworthy.
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (41 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Have you pulled credit reports for him? That could help you find out if there are any accounts you've missed. Don't forget to file his taxes for the year.

For hidden rooms, you could have someone make an accurate floorplan of the house - these are called "existing conditions drawings" or "as-builts." Sometimes when I'm making an as-built set, we come across a void - typically, it's for plumbing or a duct chase or chimney. So far: no treasure. Could be helpful for selling the property as well.

Get some dumpsters out there and start trashing things. Pull out drawers and look under them. Shake cans before you throw them out, if they are very light or rattling....might be treasure! I'd be a little worried that he may have set boobytraps but it sounds like you guys have been all over the place. You could certainly hire someone with a metal detector to go around and I bet they'd be super excited to use their detector equipment but it could take awhile and probably not turn up anything. Check everything in the freezer - open boxes, etc., before trashing. Hire someone with a drone to fly over the property and record it. Maybe you'll find a structure?

But, honestly consider what it is that you're looking for. Inheritance? Okay. But self-aggrandizing and exaggeration shouldn't be overlooked as a common pathology.

I'm sorry you're having to deal with this.
posted by amanda at 10:12 AM on October 11, 2020 [26 favorites]

With the bank information you have, a lawyer could get access to historic statements for the account(s) at the bank. That may show transfers in and out, which would be leads to other sources/destinations of money. The lawyer can then inquire with those places and repeat the process. A lawyer that does estate work will have other ideas for tracking down stocks and similar things - there are often shareholder registries and things like that that can be helpful.

As far as the physical property, I have fewer ideas. Metal detector?
posted by Mid at 10:19 AM on October 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

I have to admit I'm actually a bit dubious at the suggestions to check on bank accounts - not because I think that it's a bad idea to do so (and I agree you should), but I also have a hunch that if your brother was paranoid to that degree, he may not have trusted the banks in the first place.

In terms of how to see if there are secret compartments - is there any kind of property information or building information on file with his town? Maybe if there's some kind of floor plan they have, you could get a copy of the plans and then compare it to what you see - then obviously if you see any anomalies ("wait, the floor plan says there's supposed to be another room here, but there's just a wall...." pr "the house is 20x30 feet on the outside, but the total square footage of the inside looks like only 15X15") then that's a clue.

However, cleaning out all the "stuff" is probably the best place to start, opening each box or container as you do. Once you've gotten all the stuff cleared out and are looking at the bare bones of the spaces that may suggest directions to move in.

I'm sorry you have to deal with this. Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:26 AM on October 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

What amanda said, plus attics.

If you have access to an infrared camera (a FLIR) you can more easily see things like a safe behind a wall (because a large hunk of metal will lag the temperature of what surrounds it).
posted by BeeDo at 10:26 AM on October 11, 2020

A good probate attorney will be able to guide you in tracking down any investments.
posted by HotToddy at 10:37 AM on October 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'm sorry that you're in this difficult situation, and for the loss of your brother. I second the recommendation for pulling his credit report. Talking to a lawyer who has a practice in wills/estates (on preview - what HotToddy said) would likely be useful in gathering information about how to discover if your brother did have any hidden assets; the lawyer might point you to an accountant, as well.

As a side note, your question put me in mind of this youtube series linked on the blue a while back. If it is helpful to you to see someone else having a similar experience - though, fair warning, the emotional tone is quite different - you might find some solace and commiseration in it.
posted by minervous at 10:44 AM on October 11, 2020

In no particular order:

Don't spend any time or money on this until you get the email access. Most banks and brokerages offer "online only" access for those who want it, and someone who was paranoid about people looking into his business would have jumped on something that stopped the letter carrier putting paper statements in his mailbox.

+++ to historic bank statements.

Also get access to his App Store / Google Play accounts if he had a smart phone. You will be able to see the apps that he downloaded, including the ones he deleted.

A qualified private investigator will be able to work wonders with the death certificate and proper authorities from you and the probate court. By "qualified" I mean has dozen this dozens and dozens of times. Your probate attorney (or a probate attorney you know) can refer you. You shouldn't need to make a determination about qualifications beyond that.

One thing the PI will do - and you could do with some more difficulty - is the shotgun approach to brokers. A manageably small number of national brokerage firms monopolize the online business of private clients. With the right paperwork, the PI (or you) simply contacts all of them.

Another thing the PI will do - and you can do too - is order income tax transcripts. The 1099s and K1s from his investment accounts will be reflected.
posted by MattD at 10:49 AM on October 11, 2020 [6 favorites]

I'd guess he built an easily-accessible subterranean storage pit somewhere on the property, too deep for a metal detector to sense; but an expert (possibly a dog) might be able to recognize/locate the surface access point.
posted by Rash at 10:50 AM on October 11, 2020 [3 favorites]

You might contact the non-emergency line of the local police department and see if they might have a local recommendation. They might be able to recommend someone who would work for a fixed price, or a percentage of found gains, who can be safe around firearms.
posted by nickggully at 10:51 AM on October 11, 2020

First, I do not think that this should be your first order of business but once you wrap up the various other things going on and are looking to potentially sell the property then you can get a contractor to do a ground-penetrating radar survey for on the order of $1K - $2K per day in my area, with the cost going higher if you want a detailed report (ie., more than just "there's something weird and square over here, and also over there").

GPR can go much much deeper than metal detectors (~100ft in the right soils). You can actually rent the gear itself for like $1K per week, but then you gotta have the expertise to use it, so personally I'd hire an underground survey company and be done with it. If you don't want to admit it might be a bunker, you could say you want to make sure there are no underground storage tanks on the property (old tanks are a huge environmental hazard, so they're one of the things underground survey teams commonly look for).
posted by aramaic at 11:01 AM on October 11, 2020 [11 favorites]

I can’t find the article online but I read about a similar situation where the family of a wealthy woman who had passed away used local treasure hunters—the folks with metal detectors—to investigate her hone to find all the secret drawers and compartments they knew existed. The treasure hunters were successful where a lot of other people weren’t. There is probably a local enthusiasts’ group in the area. At the very least they’ll probably have some good ideas as to how to proceed.
posted by corey flood at 11:10 AM on October 11, 2020 [4 favorites]

I am not an expert on anything, but I will share that as I read your question, the phrase "forensic accountant" came to mind. I do not know if that is an overblown solution, or if they are too expensive for anything but large fortunes. At the very least it might be useful to find one and see what said accountant thinks of the situation.
posted by metabaroque at 11:27 AM on October 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

There are auction companies that will help you with clearing out all the stuff.

Home energy audit people definitely have FLIR cameras. Good home inspectors might have one too.
posted by Dashy at 11:32 AM on October 11, 2020

The cars and boats may be caches; lots of places to hide stuff there, so don't just sell them off. There was a guy on Reddit who bought a used car only to discover later that the air filter compartment was filled with cash. Responses included folks with similar experiences finding valuables in car door casings, etc.
posted by carmicha at 11:36 AM on October 11, 2020 [6 favorites]

My grandfather stuffed boxes with valuables in them in a bunch of random pieces of furniture. He told my aunt this on his deathbed. Drawing the shades and tallying up what we found after his death was one of the most surreal situations I've ever been in. I'm sure we missed a few boxes. Anyhow, don't have anyone haul away the furniture (chairs, couches) without first seeing if anything is stuffed inside.
posted by k8lin at 11:39 AM on October 11, 2020 [13 favorites]

Don’t forget to check the browser history and cookies on the computer to see what financial sites he may have visited.
posted by Nerd of the North at 11:42 AM on October 11, 2020 [5 favorites]

I had an elderly neighbor out in the country who had buried his prepper hoarder stash, including guns and gold, in barrels buried around his property.
posted by HotToddy at 11:51 AM on October 11, 2020

17 secret hiding spots.
posted by BoscosMom at 12:10 PM on October 11, 2020 [4 favorites]

Before Y2K, my grandmother hid a lot of cash behind electrical wall plates.
posted by QuakerMel at 12:40 PM on October 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

Someone i used to know glued small (eg like 100 gram) gold bars to the bottom of furniture and on top of that screwed over wood so in effect a second bottom.
They bought the gold in small bars and coins only in cash, and destroyed any receipts.

They found the idea in a prepper and bank hater forum, so in your situation i might look for prepper forums and recommendations they give.
posted by 15L06 at 12:57 PM on October 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Be sure to open the books.

Preppers like to bury stuff in ammo boxes.

And do get an alarm system.
posted by jgirl at 1:16 PM on October 11, 2020

My grandfather hid money in the light fixtures. There was also a crawl space which had things like boxes of detergent, that we actually full of gold coins. He put a lot of money into precious metal and jewelry because he did not trust banks. I’m sorry you have to do this.
posted by Valancy Rachel at 3:26 PM on October 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

My mother, who was not paranoid but did have a healthy fear of "robbers" somehow, hid her fancy jewelry in the pockets of clothes in the closet, in some of her rarely-used purses, and inside some of the backs of picture frames. We knew this and she also indicated it in her "final wishes" document but just FYI for other hidey spots.
posted by jessamyn at 3:33 PM on October 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

A friend bought a house out in the countryside that had been built by a prepper. The prepper was still healthy when he sold the property so there weren't any treasures to be found (except, friend said, a small munitions cache left behind as a gift, in a black metal canister that had been hoisted up high into a tree's branches, and some disabled boobytraps) but when friend gave us a tour we got some insights into how they think about things. For example, there were small hatches in the ceilings of a couple rooms on the first floor; friend explained that they were murder holes, so that when the hypothetical government goons came to invade (after hypothetically first smashing through the multiton steel-plate front barricade across the driveway) the occupant could peel back the carpet on the second floor and shoot them as they entered the house. The under-counter cabinets in the kitchen had liftable panels to store things under, and after spending a while there you started to get comfortable with the assumption that anything you looked at could be used as a hiding place for a weapon. Most parts of a house, and most of its contents, are hollow. Most furniture is primarily air and padding.

Friend's house didn't have any secret rooms but the interior walls were unusually thick, presumably to use as caches although I don't recall seeing any obvious seams. It's possible your late brother's property has an in-ground fuel tank, like my friend's property did.

These are things you'll have to record (and possibly clean out or remove) before you sell the property, and maps can also help you keep track of your work. Agree with the above that you should hire somebody to map the house and any outbuildings in detail, and have a surveyor map the property. You might also want to get recommendations for a hoarder cleaning specialist and maybe an estate sales company, because they have each probably dealt with situations exactly like this already.

It depends on what flavor of paranoia your brother subscribed to; the previous occupant of my friend's property fully subscribed to the secret-government-and-black-helicopters school, so his own estate's buildout was modeled after a paramilitary compound. By comparison some guys will fiercely defend their desire to be left alone but beyond that don't care much about the world outside their property; their guns bring a sense of security, I guess, but they don't necessarily step beyond that into low-key guerilla war preparations. I hope your brother's found peace, and that your work here can be resolved quickly.
posted by at by at 4:07 PM on October 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

The house we live in was built by a Bircher who lived off of sweetheart road contracts and kickbacks and had predatory sexual habits. We didn't know. Neighbors would hint and shutup. His wife outlived him by 20 years and never found what we did. I still think we've missed something under one barn. The foundation is ridiculously overbuilt.

Try measuring everything and drawing the floorplans on graph paper and see what that suggests in terms of dead space. The trickiest one was a tiled shower where one of the walls was actually a pocket door if you pushed in just the right place.

We had an electrician out to help set up some kilns and the fuse box was really puzzling to him. "Unless there's another one somewhere..." He was the biggest help. That got me looking at the well and septic to see where else water came and went. A cabinet maker was pretty helpful too. Those are cheap options.

If it's a big property, look for old telephone poles or tarry stumps that have no reason. That could have been an old metered power source for construction.

I had relative who vanished after Vietnam, sold drugs for a living and died alone 25 years later. He didn't have bank accounts- he had safety deposit boxes. 1990ish we had to go from bank to bank with the keys and see if they matched. It was the only way.

I do wellness checks and sometimes I'm the only person they saw for their last year so I get asked for insight, and there's just no pattern to those.

Get in touch if I'm anywhere near you.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 4:46 PM on October 11, 2020 [9 favorites]

Is there any reason you're ruling out crypto?
posted by turkeyphant at 5:39 PM on October 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

In my grandparents' home, pressing or right next to the molding would cause decorative wall panels to pop open up; the easiest way to find them was to look for the smudges from people's hands. The moulding hid the hinges. At another family house, the phony bookcase concealing the secret room worked like a pocket door rather than like a swinging door. And my great grandmother hid cash within the pages of books.
posted by carmicha at 5:50 PM on October 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

The only really helpful thing I might be able to add is that my next door neighbors when I was little were a suburban biker gang and the people who moved in after the house was foreclosed discovered that a bunch of the apparent electrical outlets were false fronts for hidey holes.

And a slightly less helpful thing is that we discovered that my grandma kept cash in her document filing cabinet in a folder behind the "M" label, presumably because she knew she'd remember "money". Like others, she also had jewelry and cash hidden in purses and dress pockets.

And +1000 to go through all those vehicles with a fine toothed comb. I would bet $5 that one of them was his "bugout car" and there's a big stash of gold and guns in there somewhere.
posted by potrzebie at 10:26 PM on October 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

"Look for things where there shouldn't be things" is my general advice as my father was this sort and you just had to kind of look for things that were out of place.

Like he had wood floors and if you looked really closely at them, particularly under rugs and carpets, you'd see a little square cutout that didn't quite fit in, and if you lifted that up you'd find one of his hidey holes/trapdoors/hatches where he kept things. If you looked at the walls really closely you'd find little cutouts in the drywall or paneling or wallboard, usually by an outlet, that led to something. There are also whole lines of safes meant to look like real kitchen/domestic products like cans of soup or whatever but are actually for stashing valuables.

On the land, if he was going back and forth to a particular spot a lot, it would wear a trail in the ground. He might've tried to cover it up some but he might not have. See if there's any weird little trails that don't seem to go anywhere, because where they end up is probably where he has something stashed.

My mother's side of the family kept spare cash squirreled away all over. Look in books, especially the kind that don't get read often like big reference books. Don't take furniture all the way apart, but take out drawers all the way and look for false bottoms and things underneath or taped to the bottom of drawers. Look for things in the tracks of drawers or taped underneath overhangs. You might have to reach your hand in and feel around (carefully, and probably wear gloves for this).

The barn is where I'd look for bigger things like guns and ammo caches.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:40 PM on October 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

My great grandmother kept cash hidden between her folded underwear, stockings, girdles, scarfs etc. There were also a bunch of personal letters.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:48 AM on October 12, 2020

A friend told me that her grandfather slipped cash into an unobtrusive slit in a wall. I do not know how the stash was found, but there was a considerable amount.
posted by Cranberry at 12:50 AM on October 12, 2020

Check the tops of all doors to see if he drilled out space. Then take the door off it's hinges and check the bottom. Check behind all electrical outlets and switches. Take the backs off all framed pics. Look inside all hifi equipment. Take lamps apart. Go through every book, record album, CD case, cassette case.

The above is a few places we found things hidden away after a friend had passed.
posted by james33 at 5:48 AM on October 12, 2020

It wouldn't hurt to take some time looking at satellite imagery for the property.
posted by jgreco at 5:57 AM on October 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

My uncle is a conspiracy theorist/prepper, and it's a family joke that he hid some gold bars in his septic tank. My sister, cousins, and I are not particularly enthused to go looking around in there when he dies to see if it's true.
posted by little king trashmouth at 7:31 AM on October 12, 2020

Wow. Good luck here. What jumped at me was the buckets of rice/beans. Perfect dry storage for lots of items that you don't want exposed to humidity. In the fall, as vegetation starts to die-off, you might be able to more easily see walking-paths that would normally be obscured. A photo from drone might also be able to show these or a small clearing where something was built. Agree with the alarm as he might have been part of a prepper community who may now know the area is up for grabs. Agree with one car being the bug out vehicle. Finally crypto currency. May have a crypto wallet somewhere on the computer. A potentially huge asset.
posted by zerobyproxy at 7:47 AM on October 12, 2020 [4 favorites]

I read thrifting forums and I can't count the number of times someone found something insane in furniture, knick-knacks, or clothing they bought at thrifts/garage sales. Don't overlook the simple stuff, like dumpling out tins/boxes or food, or thawing stuff from the freezer ,if you have the time and inclination.

I bet there are people nearby with tools like metal detectors that would be thrilled to help, possibly even for the fun of it and helping out your elderly mom, if cost is prohibitive.

I'm sorry for your family's loss.
posted by liminal_shadows at 9:01 AM on October 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

Sorry you're having to deal with this. Have you thought of safety deposit boxes? They're old fashioned but my recently deceased husband had one. Nothing but documents. But...

...when he decided five years ago to change banks for his checking, he changed his safety deposit box too. He thought he had emptied the old one and lifted it to return and heard some jingling. Twenty years or so ago he bought gold coins, at the prodding of a friend who had a little apocalypse paranoia, and forgot about them. Good thing he heard them. They were those decades later worth $140,000.
posted by tmdonahue at 10:10 AM on October 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

It would take some googling, but maybe you could hire a dog trained in scent work. Maybe this company could help or point you to someone closer to your location. You’d probably be looking for dogs that can hit on the scent of U.S. currency and/or firearm/explosives (e.g. gunpowder.). I would not ask any law enforcement agency for help though, they will keep the cash unless you can prove it was not gained from illicit activity.

This previous question asked for ingenious hiding spot ideas.
posted by DB Cooper at 7:48 PM on October 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

I would ask around in the closest town to see if there were any contractors or suppliers who delivered to your brother's house. I would ask if there were anybody who talked to him. Any type of information like this might lead to some clues about hidden construction, excavation etc.
posted by storybored at 10:16 PM on October 12, 2020

Most people I know who fall into a similar lifestyle are usually "unbanked," meaning they do not keep any money in any bank. They buy precious metals with cash, and they keep them buried on their property.
posted by momochan at 2:49 PM on October 14, 2020

A friend told me that her grandfather slipped cash into an unobtrusive slit in a wall.

A friend told me of her grandmother in China who squirreled away her savings this way. When she went to retrieve her stash she found that it had been eaten away by insects!
posted by Rash at 5:16 PM on October 14, 2020

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