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Searching for Missing Heirs – Part 3

The last 2 weeks I have written about the increasing number of estate administration matters in our office in which there was no will and it is not clear who the heirs are.  These are cases where the decedent had no spouse or children.  We may know of the heirs on one side of the family, for example, on the paternal side but nothing about the maternal side.  In other cases we don’t know any of the heirs on either side.

We must determine all the rightful heirs – and not just some of those heirs – to be sure that the estate assets are distributed correctly. Hiring a company such as a genealogy search firm or a detective, may be necessary.  This is part of the “due diligence” that the administrator must exercise in locating missing heirs.  What specific steps need to be taken is determined in part by the size of the estate.   Since there is no central data base that can be consulted, public records, newspaper archives and personal interviews typically form parts of the search.

Once heirs are identified they must be located and if they are deceased the search then continues to the next level down on the family tree.  Once an administrator is confident he or she has identified the known heirs, a court order is advisable to foreclose other claims being made in the future.  The court provides certainty and finality to the process so the administrator can know the job is complete.

Once a determination of the heirs is set, the correct amount of inheritance tax can be calculated and an estate accounting can be provided before final distributions are made.  This process can take a year or longer depending on the complexity of the family tree.  

Communicating this process can help temper the expectations of heirs who sometimes express frustration at the delay in receiving an inheritance that could help them pay bills or make their life a bit easier.   On the hand, this is money they had no expectation of ever receiving from a person who did not leave any indication as to whom they wished to receive these assets.  Following the established legal process and “getting it right” becomes or paramount importance and takes time.