Unfortunately, when people die, they do not necessarily leave directions as to where important documents can be found. As a result, their loved ones end up sorting through piles of paperwork to try to find a trust or will. Obviously, the best way to avoid this situation is to set up an estate plan and either give copies to your loved ones or tell them where they can be located.
In the absence of such planning, there are some special rules under the California Probate Code which may assist you as detailed below.
ACCESS TO A SAFE DEPOSIT BOX
If you are searching through documents and find evidence that there is a safe deposit box such as an annual fee statement from a bank and/or a safe deposit key, you may access the box if certain conditions are met. Under Probate Code section 331, a person with a key may, before probate proceedings are initiated, obtain access to a safety deposit box to obtain wills and trust instruments from the box as long as photocopies are taken and retained in the box. In addition, the person may be allowed to access information regarding the disposition of the decedent's remains.
To access the box the person will need:
- Proof of death by either a death certificate or written statement by the coroner, physician or hospital where the decedent died; and
- Proof of identity.
ACCESS TO PERSONAL PROPERTY
In addition, the government or hospital, or the decedent's employer, may without the need to wait 40 days after death, deliver the decedent's personal property of the decedent in their possession, including keys to the residence, to the decedent's spouse or relative. (Probate Code section 330.) The only caveat to this rule is that the person or entity cannot deliver the property if the person knows or has reason to believe that there is a dispute over the right to possession of the property.
The person or entity providing the personal property must receive proof of the status and identity of the recipient of the personal property.
Assuming you receive access to the decedent's home under the above section, you can initiate a search for estate planning documents as detailed above. It would be prudent to secure any property as well so that nothing is lost or stolen.
Once you have located a will or trust, you would be well advised to contact an experienced estate planning attorney to either help you review the trust documents and administer the trust as necessary or probate a will. Attorneys at the Finlay Law Group, APC would be happy to assist you in your role in ensuring that your loved one's property is distributed to his or her intended heirs in an expeditious manner.