Administration of a decedent’s estate may involve investment accounts (with stocks and bonds) held in the decedent’s name or trust.  The investment accounts may be at a bank or a brokerage.  A person administering a probate (i.e., a personal representative) or trust estate (i.e., a successor trustee) will want to  (1) obtain information regarding decedent’s account; (2) retitle decedent’s account; (3) close decedent’s account; and (4) liquidate or transfer assets in-kind.  Such work may involve the so-called “back office” of a bank or brokerage; if the decedent’s accounts were held by a financial advisor, however, the financial advisor is the “go to” person for dealing with the company “back office”. 

The first step is to contact the correct “back office” department involved with handling a decedent’s account, sometimes called, “the estates department”.  The customer service number and email can be found on a financial statement but also by searching online.  Unfortunately calls too often involve long on-hold waiting periods, especially on Mondays and Tuesdays. 

The purpose of the initial call is to introduce oneself, to advise that the account holder is deceased, and to ask about the company’s procedures for transferring the account (i.e., what documents are required in order to gain control over the account, and how to provide them).   The bank or brokerage will then assign a case reference number to be used on all future communications.

Sometimes a specific representative may be assigned.  If a specific representative is assigned you will want that person’s telephone and email.  If no employee is assigned then you will need to communicate with the correct back-office department and will need to communicate every time a document is submitted to request someone to process the documents.  Otherwise, the documents may simply go ignored without you knowing this is even happening. 

Some of the necessary documentation is either produced or in the possession of the attorney who is assisting with administering the estate.  That is, the account holder’s certified death certificate, the client’s fiduciary authority over the account (e.g., court certified letters of administration or a trustee’s certification of trust), and a letter of authorization signed by the client to allow the bank or brokerage company to communicate with the attorney and staff.

Other blank document forms are provided by the bank or brokerage for completion and signature.  This includes a new brokerage account application and certain additional disclosure documents.   

After reading the company’s application and supporting documents, questions may arise regarding how to complete the forms, how to submit the forms, and how to follow up on the processing.  This communication can sometimes be accomplished by email or online chat (website) with a representative. 

Next is returning the signed and completed documents.  Certain documents – such as the certified death certificate — must be returned by USPS (mail) or courier delivery.  Other documents can be sent by scan and email, facsimile, or through a secure electronic portal.  Confirmation that the documents are received should be obtained.

After submission, a long period of waiting occurs.  Follow up by email avoids being kept on hold.  Often emails are not answered for days, however, and so require follow-up emails or a telephone call to get a reply.  Typically the first review of the documents results in a request for further redoing the documents to correct errors and in a request for additional documents. 

The foregoing drawn out and tedious process is usually done by an attorney or a financial advisor, or both, working with the financial company’s back office.   

The foregoing is not legal advice.  Consult an attorney if confronting these issues. Dennis A. Fordham, attorney, is a State Bar-Certified Specialist in estate planning, probate and trust law. His office is at 870 S. Main St., Lakeport, Calif. He can be reached at and 707-263-3235.

“Serving Lake and Mendocino Counties for nineteen years, the Law Office of Dennis Fordham focuses on legacy and estate planning, trust and probate administration, and special needs planning. We are here for you. 870 South Main Street Lakeport, California 95453-4801. Phone: 707-263-3235.”