What happens if a person dies without direct relatives and without a Will? The result is a long and expensive process for the heirs, that could last years and cost thousands of dollars.

What happens if a person dies without a will? New York State has an administration process under which the assets are distributed to the heirs at law (spouse, children, siblings, more distant relatives). Before the assets are distributed, however, the heirs must prove that (1) they are related to the decedent and (2) there are no other relatives that are entitled to the inheritance. With a spouse, the process is usually easy – a marriage certificate is sufficient proof. With children, the proof is also easy – a birth certificate is sufficient.

Proof of relationship: The process becomes more complicated when there are more distant relatives. You can understand why the Surrogate Court will want to see proof of the relationship – otherwise anyone could walk in and claim to be a relative of the decedent. However, establishing this more distant relationship becomes difficult. For example, how to prove that your uncle is actually your uncle? You can potentially get a letter from a un-related party who will swear that he knows your entire family well and that you are related. But what if there is no such person?

Proof that no other relatives with claims similar to yours exist. In addition, the Surrogate Court wants to ensure that ALL relatives get their fair share. Thus, if your grandfather died without a will, and there are no surviving children, but there are grandchildren, the Court will want to ensure that ALL grandchildren receive their equal share.  At that point, you will have to prove to the court that 1) all the grandfather’s children have died (a death certificate is preferable) and 2) that all the grandchildren are accounted for.

What happens if some of the grandchildren cannot be located, and you are not aware if they are alive or dead? You may have to hire an investigator and search for them. You may also have to publish announcements in local newspapers. And what if these relatives are likely to be in another country? You have to go through the same process, but internationally. The court may even assign a Guardian Ad Litem for these ‘unknown heirs’. Now imagine if the same process has to be repeated for your aunt. Or your cousin. The length of time it will take to locate all the relatives, and to prove that there are no other ones remaining is arbitrary.

There are ways of eliminating this administration process. All of them, however, involve planning prior to the person’s death. Thus, if you know that the family relationship is complicated and it may take years for the heirs to get access to the money, it helps to talk to an estate planning attorney, to evaluate your options.

Disclaimer: This article only offers general information.  Each situation is unique. It is always helpful to talk to a specialized attorney, to figure out your various options and ramifications of actions.  As every case has subtle differences, please do not use this article for legal advice. Only a signed engagement letter will create an attorney-client relationship.