Tuesday, October 27, 2015

I can't tell you

Dealing with my father's estate has been moving along and there have been a few days in the past week when I didn't have to do anything for the estate (though there are still lots of things yet to handle). When handling his investments what I need to do is usually straightforward, it is just a matter of doing it – fill out this form, supply that information, send in that document. It just takes time and effort.

There is one exception to this fairly smooth flow. That is dealing with Discover Bank, part of the same company that issues the Discover credit card.

In my list of Dad's assets was an entry for Discover Bank with an account number. A bit of research gave me their phone number. A month ago I called, giving the account number. I asked such things as What kind of account is it? I can't tell you. You're not the account owner. How much is in the account? I can't tell you. Is it in his trust or is a beneficiary listed? I can't tell you. So what do I do? Send us a letter of instruction and identify yourself and include a copy of the death certificate. So I did that – I gave all of Dad's vital numbers, did the same for Mom and for myself. I duplicated the Power of Attorney pages from the Living Trust for both Mom and Dad. As for instructions all I could ask for is tell me about the account.

This was quite different from other insurance and investment companies. All of them sent forms for me to fill out and itemized all that needed to be included in the return packet. It was a matter of sitting down, filling out forms, putting the right documents in the envelope, and send it off. There was a slight delay while asking a financial advisor which box to check. Even so, it was straightforward. Not true with Discover Bank.

Today I got a letter from them. They need more information. Through the list of documents they want I figured out a couple things. This account was not a part of his trust. He had forgotten to specify a beneficiary. The only way to gain access to the account is through probate court. This is the only part of the estate for which probate is necessary and the simple thing of specifying a beneficiary would have avoided that.

I called to confirm and clarify what the letter said. Fortunately, this time they were prompt in connecting me to a supervisor. He walked me through the steps I needed to take. Go to probate court and be given this document. Go to the IRS and get a tax number. Fill out this gov't form. Write another letter of instruction specifying whether to withdraw the money or reopen the account under the estate. Send it all in. I asked, did you get the Power of Attorney form? Yes, we did, but that doesn't do any good because Power of Attorney ends when the person dies. Oh. Now to the important question: Is there enough in the account to make all this effort worthwhile? I can't tell you. Hmm. If going through probate is going to cost $100 (pulling a number out of thin air) and the account has only $99, my effort won't be worthwhile. Will my effort be worthwhile? Yes, it will. Ah! We're getting someplace.

I took a look at the website for the probate court in Dad's county. A glance at the first form and I thought I need a lawyer. So I called the one I used for Dad's affairs over the summer and spoke to an aide. She said would an affidavit work? In Michigan that is enough for accounts less than $22K.

I called the bank again. I explained the affidavit. Will this work? This person didn't exactly say I can't tell you, but the meaning was close. Hmm. I'd really hate to go through all this work for the affidavit and then you tell me that I should have done probate instead. The affidavit should be fine. We're making progress – and the account is less than $22K.

I'm now annoyed with Discover Bank. When I called them a month ago someone there knew that there was no beneficiary on the account and thus they knew the information they were telling me to send in was not sufficient. That someone may not have been the agent I was talking to, but that agent should have known. My opinion of Discover Bank customer service is pretty low. So, yeah, I'll take the lump-sum payout to get it out of your hands and put the money elsewhere.

I called the lawyer's office again. This time I spoke to the lawyer. After I described the situation he said that since the mailing address of the bank is Utah, an affidavit may not work. What we do next depends on how much money is in the account. It is important to find that out.

I don't know how much money is in the account. All I have is the account number. I've looked through Dad's filing cabinets and safes and didn't find anything, though I did find some info in his investments. No bank statements have come through the mail.

I looked at Discover Bank's website to try to find out more about it. I found they were incorporated in Delaware (as many large corporations are) – meaning: not in Michigan. Then I came across something that clicked. Discover Bank describes itself as an online bank. Therefore any account statements would be on Dad's computer, not on paper in the filing cabinet. I haven't looked there yet.

I've been on Dad's computer a few times. One of those times was to find his list of assets. He had told me the file name included the characters "asset".

Dad's computer is running Windows 7. As has been true for several versions of Windows there is a folder with the name "My Documents" and that is the place where a lot of standard tools look for things. But that isn't where Dad put his documents. I think they're under the folder Windows set up for user-specific files from email programs and browsers. But I'm not sure. To find the list of assets I went to the top of the C drive and searched the whole thing. And if the bank statements aren't on the C drive I'll also check his email archives. The next time I'm at his house will be an adventure.

Some advice: If you have a living trust to avoid probate, make sure everything is either in the trust or has a stated beneficiary. Otherwise your heirs will have to go through probate anyway.

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