Where’s Your Heir?
Locating missing heirs after the death of their benefactor can require detective work worthy of Sam Spade
Michael Zwick heard a story from an old friend whose wife had been a home health care nurse. One of her patients had taken a liking to her and left her some money in his will when he passed away. But it took some time for the estate's attorney to track her down to settle that part of the estate.
Zwick, a practicing attorney, realized there was a need for a company that tracked down missing heirs. In 2001, he founded Assets International in Southfield, Michigan, a licensed and bonded private investigation company that locates individuals and companies named in documents such as wills.
Without a will, the search for heirs can be more difficult.
When There Is No Will
If someone dies without leaving a will or naming beneficiaries, a probate judge will likely consider the next of kin to be the heir. This process, called intestate succession, does not necessarily rule out family members who are not blood relatives. The requirements vary by location or situation, but next of kin may include:
- A spouse or legal domestic partner
- Parents or children, whether adopted or biological
- Siblings or cousins
- Aunts, uncles, grandparents, grandchildren or other blood relations
Without a will, the search for heirs can be more difficult. A recent Caring.com survey found that 44% of adults aged 55 and over have a will, down from 60% in 2019. However, a surprising 63% of younger adults have a will or other plan for their estate, having been primarily motivated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Professional Heir Hunters
In some states such as Florida, companies can assist in an "heir search," says Claudia Cobreiro, attorney and founder of Cobreiro Law in Coral Gables, Florida. "Using the information available to identify the heir, these companies do the due diligence on behalf of the executor or personal representative to locate the heirs and distribute the property according to the (deceased benefactor's) wishes."
"A lot of attorneys or executors will first reach out to family members or use Google to find people," says Zwick. "If they can't find the person, then hopefully they call us and we'll get to work."
He said that finding someone can require searching a proprietary database or poking around genealogy websites. "For example, if a person who's missing is a cousin, we'll piece the family tree together and zero in on where that missing heir is," he says.
Zwick's company helped find a missing sibling who was homeless and had not been in contact with his family for more than 10 years. In another case, a mother of four children was discovered to be an adoptee only after her death. Further research discovered that the adoptee's birth mother had purchased Certificates of Deposit in both their names.
"We understand that people are going to be skeptical when they get a call from us — we know that sometimes it does sound too good to be true."
To support its networks of genealogical researchers, private investigators and other agents across the country, Assets International charges for its services, as do most firms that assist in locating heirs. The heir often pays the fee, which can range from 20% to 30% of the full inheritance amount.
Be Cautious if Contacted
"We understand that people are going to be skeptical when they get a call from us — we know that sometimes it does sound too good to be true," Zwick says.
Legitimate heir hunters will present their licenses and other credentials when they first make contact, he adds. They won't ask potential heirs to pay money before they have their inheritance in hand. "It should be strictly contingency where they get paid at the end, once you have received your inheritance," Zwick says.
When creating a will or other documents, be as specific as possible when it comes to naming heirs or recipients of portions of the estate. "It is crucial to use the full legal name of each heir with all middle names and second last names, if applicable," says Cobreiro.
"Another best practice is to include the heirs' dates of birth on documents, especially when heirs have a common name," she adds. "An attorney may suggest including additional information such as a copy of a driver's license or other identification for the file."
Why You Need a Will
Wills describe how you wish to distribute your financial assets and property to family members or friends after your death, and may include alternate heirs should one of the people named in your will dies before you do. A court may decide that assets not designated for a living person or alternate should go to whoever is named to receive the remainder, or the "residue" of the estate.
When someone passes away, their debt and taxes are usually paid using their assets. The remainder is divided and distributed among the heirs. But some heirs have isolated themselves or been estranged from the family. Each state has probate laws that describe the procedures that must be followed in the case of a missing heir, and deadlines for this process varies from state to state.
There might be a specific bequest of certain cash amount or items to heirs, and the benefactor might give the remainder to go to an individual or organization. If there is no such language in the will, or there is no will at all, then you need to look at state law to see what it says about where the money should be sent, or how long the missing heir has to come claim the money, says Zwick.
Each state has probate laws that describe the procedures that must be followed in the case of a missing heir, and deadlines for this process varies from state to state.
Ways to Locate an Heir
A representative of the estate could use one or more ways to locate heirs:
- Place a notice in the local newspaper, and in the areas where you may think the heir is living. The notice should encourage any possible heirs to contact the executors or representatives and it should appear in the newspaper for a number of consecutive weeks.
- Contact all known heirs and notify them of the proceedings.
- Search for possible social media accounts or mention in Google searches.
- If a missing heir has an organized trade or hobby, contact relevant organizations. For example, a missing heir who shows purebred dogs may be located through show agendas or breeding groups.
- Search public records, if possible, for marriage licenses, divorce decrees or other legal notices that may contain a recent address.
- Contact friends or relatives of the missing heir and ask if they have knowledge of locations or contact information.
- Hire an investigator to find the missing heir.
Zwick says heirs sometimes prefer not to be found or may have no interest in the inheritance. "In those cases," he explains, "we just report back to the executor or attorney and inform them of the situation."