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Where there is no will, there may be no way

Having a valid will and ensuring access to important estate and financial documents is an important part of estate planning. When this does not occur, surviving heirs face numerous obstacles. But, there are ways to climb out of this estate hole if parents or family members do not have a will or provide this access.

First, look through the parent's file cabinets, records and any other place where important documents were kept. Speak to their accountants and any lawyers they ever hired. Any business cards identifying lawyers, accountants or financial advisors may be helpful.

Locating an older will may be conclusive. Wills do not expire with age unless revoked by a later will. The will, regardless of its age, will go through probate if it was not revoked. A safety deposit box may contain the will. But, the access authority may be locked in that box. If parents named their children as a signatory, access is uncomplicated. Otherwise, heirs will have to take steps under Michigan law to gain access.

Other important information is contained in financial statements and tax returns that are current to the parent's death. Probate and estate tax returns rely on the value of assets on the date of death. Financial statements may also reveal the ownership of accounts. Ownership of the account will pass to the surviving joint owner, which may eliminate the need for probate of that asset. Accounts that are payable upon death also pass automatically to the person listed to receive that account without the need of probate.

Any assets that were owned jointly with a surviving spouse, or where there is a named beneficiary, may also pass automatically to the spouse who is living or to the named beneficiary. This usually occurs with life insurance, an individual retirement account and a 401(k).

Assets in only one person's name, usually a home or bank account, will likely require probate. Family members will have to file a petition seeking court approval as the estate's personal representative or administrator if the person died intestate.

An attorney can help draft a will and create an estate plan so heirs and family members do not have to navigate these problems. Lawyers can also help surviving family members if a will was not drafted.

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