Creating a Treasure Map: The Benefits of Preparing an Inventory Before Death

If you have already done your estate planning, you have taken a significant step toward ensuring that your loved ones will know how to manage your affairs if you become incapacitated or die. However, simply having a will or a trust and related estate planning documents is often not enough. A detailed inventory of all of your accounts and property is crucial for helping your loved ones manage your legal and financial affairs effectively.
 
Most estate planning attorneys have received calls from distressed children who knew that a deceased parent had a will or a trust, but had no idea what accounts, insurance policies, or items of real and personal property the parent owned. If an inventory was never prepared and shared with the parent’s attorney, the child likely had to spend countless hours meticulously combing through the parent’s file cabinets, drawers, tax returns, mail, and online accounts to identify what the parent owned.
 
Needless to say, this is not something that anyone wants to have happen. Even if you do not have a will or a trust in place, you do not need to wait to prepare an inventory of your property until you have created these legal documents. In fact, assembling an inventory can be an excellent first step when it comes to your estate planning. This preliminary effort will allow your attorney to immediately begin focusing on the creation of a will or a trust that takes into account each of your accounts and pieces of property and how they should be coordinated with your estate planning goals. If you take this step, your attorney is guaranteed to be impressed and grateful for your preparation.

How to Create an Inventory

Creating an inventory of your accounts and property does not need to be very complicated. It can be a simple word processing document or even a handwritten list. Many individuals create spreadsheets in software programs like Microsoft Excel, Numbers, or Google Sheets. There are also numerous online services that can help you create a thorough inventory of your property. Many of these services enable you to automatically share your inventory with chosen individuals at a time that you designate before death or disability strikes. The bottom line is that any of these methods can work well—the important thing is that you create an inventory. Below is an example of an inventory formatted as a spreadsheet with columns and rows:

Of course, this is just an example of what an inventory could look like. You should include any information that you think will be helpful to someone who is put in charge of collecting your property after you have passed away. You might include additional details, such as where the property is located. For example, if you keep certain items of jewelry in a safe, or a boat you own is stored in dry storage, this would be crucial information to include.
 
In addition, though you will not share this with your attorney, consider using a software program or other service to store passwords for online accounts and even store digital copies of your important documents.

Property and Probate

As you create your inventory, you will review how each item is titled or who is named as the beneficiary on certain accounts, which will enable you to identify those items of property that will have to go through probate. Probate is the court process that appoints an executor or personal representative to inventory your probate property and distribute the property according to state law or the terms of your will, if you have one. Generally speaking, any account or property that meets the following conditions will have to go through the probate process: (a) is owned only in your name, (b) is not owned jointly with another person, (c) is not titled in the name of a trust or business entity (like an LLC or partnership), and (d) does not have a named pay-on-death (POD) or transfer-on-death (TOD) beneficiary associated with the property.
 
Washington State has a streamlined probate process that is not as expensive or time consuming as the probate process in other states. However, if avoiding probate is a goal of yours, preparing an inventory well before you pass away can alert you to those items of property that will require a probate so that you can take steps prior to your incapacity or death to transfer ownership or retitle them.

Additional Benefits of a Complete Inventory

By creating an inventory with the type of information demonstrated in the example above, you can help your loved ones understand their next steps with regard to taking control of your property for management and distribution. Certain items and accounts, such as the following, may be distributed according to the unique legal aspects of that type of property:

  • Property owned in joint tenancy with rights of survivorship (such as real estate or bank accounts) will pass automatically to the surviving joint owner and outside of a trust or probate.
  • Some bank or investment accounts may have POD or TOD designations that allow those accounts to skip the probate process and be paid directly to a named beneficiary such as a child, spouse, trust, or charity.
  • Life insurance proceeds typically will not have to go through probate if you have properly completed the beneficiary designation form by naming your loved ones, a trust, or a charitable organization as beneficiaries on the policy.
  • Accounts and property titled in the name of a trust (i.e., owned by the trust) can be distributed outside of probate according to the terms of the trust agreement.
  • Retirement accounts usually require the listed beneficiaries to file a claim with the account custodian before the account will be paid out. Probate courts and trusts usually have no control over retirement accounts.
  • Vehicles will typically need to be transferred through the local department of motor vehicles, which requires an affidavit along with a death certificate and the physical car title.
  • Certain items of personal property (e.g., furniture, jewelry, art, collections, etc.), if above the value determined by state law, may be subject to probate, unless they are transferred into a trust before death.

What to Do with Your Inventory Once Created

After creating your inventory, make sure to store a copy where your loved ones will be able to easily find it should something happen to you. Consider the following locations:

  • an estate planning portfolio or binder
  • a file folder that is clearly marked and easily accessible to your loved ones
  • an electronic document format that can be shared with your trusted loved ones online
  • a clearly labeled USB drive in your safety deposit box or safe (as long as you let your loved ones know what to look for, where to find it, and how to access it)
  • your client file with your other professional advisors (so that they can help your loved ones easily identify all of your property if your loved ones call them first after your death)

Once you have created and shared your inventory, you should create a plan for updating it. Over time, accounts get closed or consolidated with other accounts, property is sold or acquired, stocks get converted to cash, and retirement accounts get depleted. If you do not regularly update your inventory, there is a chance that you could create confusion and send your loved ones down rabbit holes as they try to handle your affairs.
 
Some people find it helpful to choose a specific date each year when they will review and update their inventory and also review their estate planning documents. Whatever will work best for you, make a plan, implement it, and then stick with it. Your loved ones will praise your name for years to come if you do. If you need assistance or have questions reviewing your important documents, feel free to give us a call.

No Legal Advice Intended. This blog includes general information about legal issues and developments in the law. Such materials are for informational purposes only and may not reflect the most current legal developments. These informational materials are not intended, and must not be taken, as legal advice on any particular set of facts or circumstances. You need to contact a lawyer licensed in your jurisdiction for advice on specific legal issues or problems.