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Searching for Missing Heirs – Part 2

In last week’s blog post I talked about how many people are alone without apparent family and that dying alone – from an estate administration perspective – raises issues such as identifying the rightful heirs.

For people that don’t have close relationships, they probably have less reason to think about executing a will.  As I explained last week, state intestacy laws step in when there is no will.  Often, although not always, some people who had some contact with the decedent step forward or are easily identified.  This does not, however, tell us about any other heirs we may not know about.

When we work on an estate administration matter, the heirs typically get impatient about the process.  “Why does it take so long”, they ask.  There are actually a number of reasons why.

Let’s start with the fact that any administrator must be appointed, either by the County Surrogate, the elected official charged with overseeing the estate administration process, or a judge in cases where there is no spouse or child with first right to serve as administrator under the law.  When a judge is needed, the process takes a bit longer – 6 week or longer depending on the court’s scheduling.

Once an administrator is appointed, he or she must identify and locate the assets, which may or may not be easy – depending on what records may exist in the decedent’s home and elsewhere.  Then there is the matter of identifying heirs.

As I stated above, known heirs sometimes get inpatient.  “If I am an heir, can’t you just give me my share?  You know I’m an heir.”  The problem with that is not knowing who the rest of the heirs are.  That’s because the administrator may know of 2 cousins, but their existence doesn’t rule out that there may be 3 or 5 or 7 other cousins.  All rightful heirs share the estate so no one person can receive their “share” until we know what that share is.  The more heirs there are the smaller share of “the pie” each heir receives.

Next week I’ll explain how we make that determination.