Heir Locator Services: After Finding Heirs, What’s Next
If you are the administrator of an estate and the decedent passed away without a valid will or trust accounting for their assets, their estate will pass to familial relations in accordance with intestacy laws. Unless the heirs to an estate are abundantly clear–a surviving spouse and surviving children of the deceased, for example–it may be necessary to conduct an heir search with a professional heir locator service. Once potential heirs have been identified, however, what happens next? Read on for a discussion of the heir identification and probate process. If you are an estate administrator who needs to locate missing heirs, or a putative heir in need of proof to support your claim of inheritance, call a qualified forensic genealogist to assist you with your needs.
Operation of Intestacy
When a person dies without a will, it is known as dying “intestate.” Their estate will pass to heirs under the state’s “intestacy” laws. Intestacy laws dictate which family members are entitled to inheritance when there’s no will, and in what order. The laws operate by identifying tiers or levels of familial relation; if there’s a living relative at that level, they inherit all or part of the estate. If there is no surviving spouse or children of the decedent, for example, the estate will go to surviving parents and siblings. If there are no surviving parents or siblings, it may go to cousins or other more distant relatives.
It’s important to conduct a thorough genealogical search of a decedent’s lineage to determine which potential heirs are living and to validate the claims of any putative heirs. If the person died intestate, the administrator needs to track down all potential heirs and inform them of their right to inherit. The administrator must be apprised of all surviving heirs in order to properly apportion the estate. If, for example, the decedent has only two surviving cousins and no other family, it’s important to identify both cousins in order to split the estate between the two.
The Estate Administrator Notifies Heirs
Typically, whoever is named in the will as executor will be appointed as personal representative of the estate and will take charge of the probate process. If there’s no will, then the probate court will appoint someone as “administrator” to handle the process. The court will usually appoint the closest living relative to the decedent or someone else entitled to inherit. If no heirs can be readily identified, the court may appoint another party. The estate administrator is responsible for ensuring that any outstanding creditors of the estate are paid and that whatever remains of the estate passes to appropriate heirs per the law and the court’s orders. Typically, the administrator will hire a probate lawyer to help with the process.
Particularly if there is trouble tracking down any heirs, the estate administrator will need to conduct diligence to locate any living heirs. They can (and should) retain a professional genealogical researcher to conduct a thorough heir location process and identify any potential heirs to the estate. Once those heirs have been identified, the estate administrator should inform them of their inheritance rights.
The Court May Oversee Probate Litigation
If there are any disputes over who is entitled to inherit the estate or particular assets, an interested party might commence probate litigation. Probate litigation involves competing parties disputing the terms of a will or the inheritance rights of various potential heirs; it requires a review of the evidence as well as possible testimony before the probate court. The court may also oversee a hearing concerning claims of creditors and determine whether to accept or reject their claims.
The Court Issues an Order Establishing Heirship Rights
Once all putative heirs have been identified and claims have been made to the court, the court will review the evidence and issue an opinion in accordance with the state’s intestacy laws. The court’s order will dictate which individuals are entitled to inherit and which assets will be distributed to whom. If the family disagrees about how the estate should be split up, they will rely on the court order to resolve any disputes.
If there’s been no dispute about heirship, there may or may not need to be much court involvement, depending upon the probate and intestacy rules of the state. In some jurisdictions, a sole heir may be able to obtain legal authorization to collect property from the court clerk without ever seeing the inside of a courtroom.
The Property is Distributed to the Identified Heirs
Once the right to inherit has been established, the identified heirs have the right to their share of the estate. The administrator will present an accounting of the estate and a final petition for distribution in accordance with the court’s judgment. Heirs do not have to take additional steps to collect their inheritance; it’s up to the probate administrator to see that the right people get the right assets according to the probate decision. It is certainly helpful if the heir is actively engaged in the process, however, as they can help facilitate the transfer of assets.
If you’re an estate administrator in need of experienced assistance identifying and locating missing heirs to an estate and for determination of heirship proceedings, or heir research services in order to satisfy due diligence requirements, contact the experienced, thorough forensic genealogists of Von Langen, LLC at 800-525-7722.