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The Unknown (Half) Sibling – Part 2

In last week’s post I was telling you about Mary’s problem.  She had moved in with and taken care of her cousin, Sam after his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease.  She had given up the lease on her apartment when she agreed to the arrangement and Sam promised in return to leave her his home when he died.

After his death, however, she discovered that he had never executed a will stating this intention.  Nevertheless, Mary had done some initial research and thought that she and her sister would inherit the home under New Jersey’s intestacy laws.  She had called our office to confirm that this was in fact the case and to seek our help with the estate administration process.

It was when I asked some follow questions that Mary told me about a family rumor that Sam’s father had a daughter from a previous marriage.  If true, then this sibling would be the closest relative to Sam.  Mary objected that this possible sibling was only a half sibling and did not even know Sam.  I told her that didn’t matter.  Half siblings are treated the same as full siblings and involvement in the decedent’s life did not factor in any determination under the intestacy laws.  

These laws are arbitrary in the sense that they may not achieve what the decedent would have wanted but that’s why the State gives each of us the opportunity to express our wishes in the form of a will.  If you choose not to exercise that right, then you are subject to the decisions made by the State.

I told Mary that an administrator would first need to be appointed as the representative of the estate.  That fiduciary would then need to conduct a diligent inquiry to determine the existence and location of any heirs who might have an interest in the estate.  Mary then asked me who could serve as administrator.  I told her that first right to serve would go to a spouse or if there is none then to one or more of the remaining heirs who wish to be appointed.  

Since the only known possible heirs at this point were Mary and her sister, one or both of them could apply to the surrogate’s court.  Once appointed, the administrator could then conduct a search for any other heirs including the possible half sibling.  I explained to Mary that there are companies that search public records and conduct investigations of this type.  The cost would be paid out of the estate proceeds.

Mary said she was willing to serve as administrator so we applied on her behalf.   Her sister was the only other known heir and agreed to sign a renunciation in favor of Mary.  The court approved the application.  Now came the harder part.

Next week I’ll tell you more.