Many of the principals about will making and dying intestate (without a will) are universal but vary under American law, and may differ in each state.
If a person dies without a will a state or public trustee may be appointed by the Court as the estate trustee, then any person claiming a share of that estate will have to establish they are entitled to inherit.
Most state organisations make every effort to trace beneficiaries using probate researchers (who may also be called probate detectives or heir hunters). Usually specialist firms are appointed on a regular basis and may work on a fee basis paid from the entire estate, or contingency where tracing fees are deductible from a beneficiaries share.
Beneficiaries typically may have moved across into other states, even to other countries so tracing heir to some estates is both time consuming and costly. If no heirs are found the state collects the estate proceeds.
Dependent on the size and complexity of the estate a lawyer is best suited to handle the legal, tax and probate issues to avoid any later difficulties.
Even where a valid will exists, certain conditions may exist to make this invalid or be disputed by beneficiaries and/or the deceased's family. (The late famous billionaire Howard Hughes had his last will declared a forgery by the court, and then it took 15 years to sort out who inherited his fortune under the terms of intestacy In 1983 22 cousins inherited his 2.2 billion dollar estate)
The final duty of the trustee is to distribute the net estate to the lawful heirs under the law. In determining the rights of anyone to share in the estate of a deceased person without a will, the effective date is the date of death of the deceased.
USA state based genealogist firms and probate researchers co-operate with similar organisations across other states and the world and can provide useful contacts. Their services are typically fee based or some work on a contingency fee basis where their costs are met from a beneficiaries entitlement rather than the estate as a whole.
More detailed knowledge is in our members area this includes;
- Clickable state map to all the government departments dealing with unclaimed estates
- Investigators Handbook - a how to guide based on a typical states methods and procedures
- US State Laws applicable to probate and estate issues
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