If you’re the executor of an estate, you may not have anticipated that one of your challenges might be having to track down a missing heir or other beneficiary. However, that can happen if the contact information the deceased person had for one of their extended or estranged family members is outdated, and no one seems to know where this person is or even if they’re still alive.
This person has been left a sizable (or maybe not-so-sizable) amount of money or other asset. What are your obligations to locate them and give them the inheritance the decedent intended them to have?
The executor is required to make “reasonable efforts” to find a missing heir. That means doing more than just reaching out to their last known phone number, email address or other contact. While notification to their last known address may be required, some additional due diligence is also required.
You might want to search through various social media platforms. A Google search might give you some clues. There are all kinds of “people finder” sites. Of course, you can enlist the help of family members without giving them specific information about the amount of the inheritance. Sites like Legacy.com can help if the person is deceased.
When do you call in a professional?
If the inheritance is substantial, you might need to bring in a forensic genealogist or private investigator with experience locating missing heirs. The time and money expected to be spent to locate someone typically depends on the value of the inheritance.
If this turns into a long search, you may want to ask the court if the other distributions can be made. In the meantime, the assets designated for the missing heir are often placed in a trust for a designated period to await the location of the heir or confirmation that they’re deceased.
What if the inheritance remains unclaimed?
If the assets go unclaimed, other family members may choose to petition the court for them or to have them returned to the estate for distribution. The decedent may have designated what they wanted to happen to that particular inheritance if the beneficiary predeceased them or couldn’t be located.
These days, it’s rare that someone cannot be located unless they’ve put some effort into not being found. However, if that’s what you encounter as you’re administering an estate, it’s wise to seek legal guidance.