Legally Speaking

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What Happens to Unclaimed Estates When Someone Dies Without an Heir?

What Happens to Unclaimed Estates When Someone Dies Without an Heir?

Usually, when people die, their loved ones assemble. There is often a ceremony. People make speeches. They console each other. The lost loved one is fondly remembered.


But what if no one comes to the funeral? Worse than that, what if no one even knows that you’ve died?


The New York Times piece, ‘Dying Alone in New York City,’ tells the story of George Bell, a man who died in his apartment alone. The article draws attention to the growing number of people whose deaths go unnoticed. ‘No one collects their bodies. No one mourns the conclusion of a life. They are just a name added to the death tables. In 2014, George Bell, age 72, was among those names.’


The discovery that someone has died alone and unnoticed is sad and confronting, but things become complicated when that person also has an unclaimed estate.


What Happens to Unclaimed Estates?


In a case such as George Pell’s, with no living relatives and an unclaimed estate, one may naturally ask, so what happens next?


Indeed what happens to an unclaimed estate in the U.S.?


When a person dies and has not made a will, their estate passes on to the next in line of succession, usually a family member. But if the person doesn’t have any living relatives, their estate reverts to the state.


Trying to Find Living Relatives


Fortunately, there are excellent legal providers whose sole purpose is to track down the living relatives of unclaimed estates. There is much detailed research and expertise required, but the state must locate the rightful inheritance recipients. Often, probate genealogists take a percentage of the estate for their services, but finding those next in the line of succession is a vital task.


According to the law, when the unclaimed estates are vast, it’s in everyone’s interests to find the rightful owner.


What Happens if An Heir is Missing?


In the U.S., the law varies from state to state. Most states allow for a long line of succession to allow the most opportunities to find a beneficiary. But what if, after all that searching, an heir still can’t be found?


In that case, the estate is forfeited in ‘escheat’. When this occurs, it is, again, different in every state. Some states pronounce escheat early. They do this to avoid a person with no relationship to the benefactor receiving the inheritance. Other states draw out the process to guarantee that the line of succession has adhered.


If, in the end, the heir is still missing, then Escheat is enacted.


Can You Reject a Relative’s Inheritance?


Interestingly, there are also situations where an individual may want to reject their inheritance. There are several reasons for this. In the U.S., an inheritance may jeopardise someone’s access to social services and income. It could affect employment. On some occasions, it can be simply that a person didn’t know the deceased and doesn’t feel right claiming their estate.


If U.S. citizens do disclaim their inheritance, most states move on to the next person in the line of succession. Of course, all of this has to be done through the correct legal channels. A person has to state that they reject the inheritance in writing.


The Moral of the Story 


George Pell was a man who sadly left this Earth alone. None of us would wish our death to go unnoticed. None of us would want to go the way of George Pell. But, if we take the time to write a will, we can at least make sure that the people who loved us most in life are listed as the next in the line of succession.



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