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Updated on 6 April 2023

Tracing assets after a death

When someone dies, if you are left in charge of sorting out their affairs, you will need to gather some information together. For instance, you need to know what their income and assets were and find out about any debts they owed. Here we set out some ideas that might help you trace a deceased person’s assets if you are dealing with their estate.

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Introduction

When a person dies, their estate will be dealt with by their personal representatives (‘PRs’). A PR could either be an executor (if the deceased left a will) or an administrator (if they died without a will and were ‘intestate’).

As a PR of a deceased estate there are many things that you may need to deal with, such as applying for probate and dealing with tax matters. You can read more about this on our page Bereavement: Tax issues on death.

A key part of dealing with the estate is identifying the deceased’s assets (the things they own) and liabilities (any debts they have). This is not always easy, especially if you do not know very much about the deceased’s financial affairs before death.

Where to start

Often, the most challenging part of a task is knowing where to start and getting started.

In the past, many PRs would have started by looking through the deceased’s papers and personal effects to gather together information about their assets.

However, many people now receive documents electronically or information is hidden behind online accounts. Unless the deceased planned ahead (see the end of this page for suggestions about how to do this) and left you with a list of login details, this can make your job difficult.

Contact HMRC’s bereavement helpline

One useful place to start is with the tax authority, HMRC. They will only speak to you as the PR once they have received notification of the death, so the first step is to make sure you have informed HMRC that the person has passed away. Read about the ways of notifying HMRC of a death on our page Bereavement: tax issues on death.

Once HMRC are aware that the taxpayer has died, you are then able to contact HMRC’s bereavement helpline to discuss the deceased’s tax affairs.

HMRC say they will let PRs have information that they hold for the deceased. This could include:

  • details of any pension or employment income received by the deceased
  • information about construction industry scheme (CIS) and/or VAT registrations in the name of the deceased
  • details of bank accounts held by the deceased
  • a copy of the last tax return submitted if the deceased was in self assessment.

By having the names of any pension companies and banks, you can then use a service such as the death notification service, or you could contact the companies directly to let them know about the death and request details of any pension pots/bank balances. Note that the death notification service only covers a limited number of companies. You should read the terms and conditions carefully before signing up to any third party service.

The deceased’s tax return might also provide some clues that will help you start to trace other assets. For example, you might be able to see from the tax return that the deceased was receiving dividends (income from shares) or income from property.

Getting copies of bank statements

Once you have found out what bank accounts were held by the deceased and have notified the relevant banks of the death, you should be able to request copies of bank statements. This could be helpful in piecing together what assets were held by the deceased.

Example – Adrian

Adrian lived in England and died aged 61 in June 2022. He had a simple will appointing his cousin Becky as his executor. His will left his home to Becky and then left the rest of his estate (in the will this was referred to as the ‘residue’) to his nieces and nephews.

Becky is now dealing with the estate. She visited Adrian’s home and found there was not much paperwork available to help her work out what assets Adrian owned other than the house and his car. Unfortunately, Adrian had not left Becky any more detailed information to help her trace assets like bank accounts and pensions that he managed online.

On contacting HMRC’s bereavement helpline, they were able to confirm to Becky that:

  • Adrian had received income from a private pension with Aviva during the 2021/22 tax year
  • HMRC had received bank interest details for Adrian from accounts held with HSBC and Nationwide.

Adrian had not yet completed his tax return for 2021/22 when he died, but HMRC were able to provide Becky with a copy of Adrian’s tax return for the 2020/21 tax year. Becky sees that this showed Adrian had received £10,000 of dividend income in the year from private company shares.

Becky uses the death notification service to let HSBC and Nationwide know that Adrian has died and collect balance details. She also writes to Aviva for more details of Adrian’s pension.

Becky also contacts both banks to request statements for the past year. From the statements, she can see that the dividend income she spotted on the tax return is received into the HSBC account as two six-monthly payments under the reference ‘Autumn Pies Ltd’. Becky searches Companies House on GOV.UK to find Autumn Pies Limited’s registered office address details. She is then able to get in touch with the company to let them know about the death and request details of Adrian’s shareholding from the company registrar.

Becky can also see from the bank statements that Adrian had been making regular investments in Premium Bonds. She uses this information to approach National Savings & Investments to get information about his Premium Bonds balance.

Finally, Becky notices that regular loan payments were being made from Adrian’s account to a ‘Car Loans 4 U’. She therefore contacts the company to get information about the loan balance remaining and arranges to repay the loan after probate is granted. 

Other tracing services

There are some other services that you can also use when trying to trace assets after a person has died. You should check the terms and conditions of third-party services carefully before signing up.

My Lost Account

‘My Lost Account’ is a free service that can be used to find accounts that have been untouched for at least three years. This service might be of limited use if you are a PR trying to find assets of the deceased, but could be used if there is any suspicion that the deceased had a ‘lost account’ when they were alive. The Government’s MoneyHelper website explains more about this service.

The Pension Tracing Service

The Pension Tracing Service is a free service that can be used to find unclaimed pension pots. This includes private and workplace pensions. Note that this is a private service, but it has greater functionality than the Government’s own service.

Planning ahead

It is always worth thinking about how you might be able to make things easier for your own representatives when you pass away.

A good place to start is by having a valid will in place. It is also useful to keep an up-to-date list of your assets and a secure record of online passwords. When storing passwords, you should take a very cautious approach to ensure you minimise the risk of the information falling into the wrong hands. Ways that you could help to keep this information safe might include:

  • asking your solicitor to keep a copy of the passwords securely along with your will (though this might be difficult to maintain if you change passwords regularly for security reasons)
  • keeping the information in a locked box, with only your chosen executor having access in the event of your death
  • investigating use of an online password storage application, with access available to your PR in the event of your death.
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