A few times a month, I get phone calls to my office from people who recently lost a family member and are having trouble locating the will. In the midst of grief, a misplaced will presents a significant obstacle for loved ones attempting to settle the final affairs of the decedent. When estate planning documents cannot be located, estate property will have to be probated and divided according to that state's intestate laws, which may or may not be consistent with the wishes of the decedent. Given the challenges that come with tracking down valuable estate planning documents, we present five helpful hints that might aid in your search.
1. Phone Call to the Probate Court Where Decedent Lived - This is a very useful first step for two reasons. First, the decedent may have elected to have their will to be stored at the local probate court for safekeeping (in Michigan, a will can be stored at the probate court for a $25.00 fee). Second, another relative may have already initiated probate proceedings and filed the will with the court already. Either way, you may save a lot of time and stress by this first step.
2. Ask Relatives - Sometimes, the decedent has already entrusted the will with the person that they have already nominated to be the personal representative of the estate. More frequently, the decedent has told someone close to them where to find their estate plans should the worst happen. Picking up the phone to call the decedent's children, siblings or living parents may spare you a lot of trouble.
3. Thorough Search of the Decedent's Home - In my experience as both a personal representative and estate attorney, I am frequently surprised where valuable estate planning documents show up around the house. I have found important paperwork in the bottom of laundry baskets, on top of kitchen cabinets and in banker's boxes stored behind the water heater. The home should be checked for any filing cabinets, safes and lockboxes that may contain the will. Reviewing the decedent's computer records may either turn up a digital copy of the will or helpful clues where to find it.
4. Contact Decedent's Attorney - If the decedent did business with any attorneys during their life, there is a fair chance that they may have drafted a will with either of them and a copy may be kept at that law office. Even if the attorney did not retain the original document or even a photocopy, you might contact them for useful information if they have any knowledge where the decedent ultimately decided to store those documents.
5. Look in Safe Deposit Boxes - If the decedent maintained an account at a bank, it is possible they also maintained a safe deposit there that includes estate planning documents. Of course, banks will not let just anyone look in their vault at their client's valuables. If there is a personal representative appointed to the estate or a joint tenant to the safe deposit box, then those people will be permitted to access the contents. The law also permits, even before a personal representative is appointed, for an "interested person" under Michigan law to petition the probate court to open a safe deposit box to look for a will or burial plot deed (for a $10.00 fee). Of course, you will have to know the name and location of the bank and the safe deposit box number. An "interested person" includes, but is not necessarily limited to, an incumbent fiduciary (e.g. personal representative, conservator, legal guardian), an heir, devisee (e.g. someone named as beneficiary in will), child, spouse, creditor, a person with priority for appointment as personal representative and any other person with a property right or claim in estate property.
You can't rule out the possibility that a will may not exist at all. If you are still unsuccessful in your search after following these hints, it may be time to enlist the help of an attorney for professional assistance.