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A Tale of Two Scavenger Hunts

June 1998
On the typical scavenger hunt, you are given a list of things to find and bring back to the starting point. Here are two stories about going on a slightly different kind of scavenger hunt. The first tale shows the long, hard way while the second tells a much easier story. Your challenge is that you do not have a list of things to retrieve.

Your directions require you to enter a home that you have never been in before (with the owner's permission, of course) and put together a schedule of the owner's assets. Another part of the challenge is to determine whether or not the owner has done any estate planning. You have access to anything that you can find in the house but will not be allowed to speak with anyone with knowledge of the assets.

The Hard Way

You find that the owner has a rather unique system of keeping track of names and addresses as well as a strange way of filing away important documents.

The kitchen walls are half covered with business cards and notes held in place either by thumbtacks or tape. There are no dates written on the cards and notes, so you have no idea how far back they go. In the living room, you see that there are stacks of envelopes placed on the window sills, the fireplace mantle, and on top of any other flat surface. The bedrooms are full of boxes and some drawers have clothing while others are stuffed with envelopes. One bedroom contains a large gray metal cabinet that is full of Christmas cards that the owner has received over the years.

Your search for an address book turns up empty. After a while, you realize that the old Christmas cards are used as an 'address book'. By checking the most recent cards against the business cards on the wall, you get a good idea of the most recent professional people that the owner has had contact with.

As you continue to look through drawers and closets and cabinets, you realize that the owner does not have a central location for important documents. You resign yourself to having to look through all those envelopes in order to put together the owner's assets. Some of the envelopes are grouped by date while others are according to statements received from a particular company or bank. You clear off the kitchen table and begin grouping piles of envelopes into different categories (property taxes, mutual fund statements, mortgage payments, etc).

Days later, you are able to reconstruct the owner's assets, but have not found any information about the owner's estate planning, including mention of a will.

A situation quite similar to the above actually happened to me in 1993. A little thought and organization would have reduced several days' frustrating work to just an hour or so.

The Easy Way

You walk into the house and find that all the rooms are neat and orderly. The bookshelves in the living room have books covering many different interests. One section contains binders and books on estate planning.

A peek into one of the binders reveals that the owner has put together a 'locater' folder. The contents of this binder are all that you need to put together the owner's assets and includes information about:

Family members Employment history Pension and Retirement plans
Location of safe deposit box All real estate transactions Marital history and children
Savings and checking accounts Broker account information Mutual fund account information
Copy of will Copy of Living Trust Copies of varous powers of attorney
Names of attorney, accountant, and physicians Insurance policies Funeral arrangements

Although the binder contains important information, no mention is made of actual dollar amounts in any of the accounts. This information perhaps is in a computer file or in the safe deposit box.

You could accurately assume that the owner has told family members about this binder and where it is located. The owner's foresight and planning will be highly appreciated during the days and weeks following his or her passing to another world.

The simplest estate planning device is a will. If you really want me to have half of your estate, please state it in a will. Intestacy (death without a will) allows the state to make decisions for you, and you may not exactly like the manner in which the Courts distribute your estate.

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