If someone dies without leaving a will or naming beneficiaries, a probate judge will rely on state law to consider who the heir will be, and it’s typically the next of kin. This process is known as intestate succession and doesn’t necessarily rule out family members who are not blood relatives, explains a recent article from Next Avenue, “Where’s Your Heir?”
Requirements vary by state, but next of kin usually includes a spouse or legal domestic partner, parents, or children (adopted or biological), siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, grandchildren, or other blood relatives.
With no will, the search for heirs gets tricky. In many cases, estate planning attorneys use “heir search” experts to identify heirs, carrying out investigations to locate heirs and distribute property. Often a family tree must be constructed to figure out who’s who.
Beneficiaries are understandably cautious when contacted, but legitimate heir hunters present their licenses and other credentials and do not ask for any money to be paid for the beneficiary to receive their inheritance.
This is another reason why having an estate plan, including a last will and testament, is vital for families. When working with an estate planning attorney, be specific when naming heirs. Use the full legal name of each heir, all their middle names, and second last names if applicable. Some estate planning attorneys use the heirs’ date of birth on documents, which is especially valuable if the heir has a common name. Including a copy of a driver’s license or other identification in the file may even be helpful.
Wills are used to distribute financial assets and property after death and may include alternate heirs if any of the primary heirs dies before you. When a person dies, their debt and taxes are usually paid using their assets; then, the remainder is divided and distributed to heirs according to the terms of the will. But if heirs are estranged from the family or have isolated themselves, every state has probate laws to dictate the procedures to be followed in case of a missing heir.
There could be a specific bequest for a certain cash amount or an item to be given to an heir, and the benefactor may want to give the remainder of their estate to an individual or an organization. If there is no such language in the will, or if there is no will, then the state law will determine where the assets will be sent or how long any missing heirs have to claim their inheritance.
A representative of the estate will place a notice in the local newspapers, contact all other heirs and notify them of the proceedings, search social media accounts, contact organizations like a union or a social group the person may have been involved with, or search public records for marriage licenses, divorce decrees or other legal notices containing addresses.
Some heirs may wish not to be found and don’t care for any inheritance. In this case, the estate planning attorney will work with the family and the probate court to determine what to do with any remaining assets.
Reference: Next Avenue (July 3, 2023) “Where’s Your Heir?”