I recently found out about a show by the BBC called “Heir Hunters” and it caught my attention. The premise of the show is that probate firms in England receive cases and have to track down potential heirs to receive the contents of the estate. In this case, the heirs are siblings, cousins, or more distant relations. If there are no heirs, the assets are given to the Treasury.
The estates wound up in that state because the owners never made a legitimate will, or any will at all. Thus it was up to the government, via the probate firms, to decide who would inherit what remained of the estates.
While the law may be somewhat different in the United States from British law and may vary by state, the probate and intestate processes are still alive and well. In fact, I handled a very interesting case a few years ago where I had the privilege of calling long-lost or never-met relatives of a decedent to let them know they were inheriting money from a widowed childless aunt.
In the U.S., the probate process determines the validity of your will and is supervised by the court system.1 If there is no will, the estate is considered intestate. About 55 percent of Americans die without leaving a will or any estate plans2, which means that slightly more than half of all the estates in the United States enter probate or intestacy.
In Maryland, if you die without a Will and have children, your spouse will not inherit all of your estate. Instead it will be split between parent and children, which may cause undue hardship to the surviving spouse. The laws also vary in Virginia and D.C., especially if there are children from the decedent’s prior relationships. If there are no living heirs, including among parents or siblings, then the estate goes to the state. In Maryland, these assets are distributed to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene or to the Board of Education of the county in which the decedent lived.3
Creating a valid will or trust is crucial for ensuring your wishes are carried out and properly documented for representatives and heirs. Returning to “Heir Hunters” for a moment, many of the estate owners were those who had lived reclusive lives in their final years, or lived alone, or in some cases, were estranged from family. Often the stories have some kind of happy ending, with distant relatives finding out about family they didn’t know they had, or receiving an unexpected inheritance. However, for all the good things that may happen, these are not reasons to assume everything will be OK if you decide not to create a will or trust. It is still valuable to create a legal estate plan and define who should receive your estate upon your passing, and relieve some of the stress placed upon your loved ones by having these issues already spelled out in a legal, binding document for all to abide by.
Heir Hunters website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007nms5
1 “Wills and Estates.” American Bar Association. 2016. http://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_education/resources/law_issues_for_consumers/probate.html
2 “Estate Planning FAQs.” American Bar Association. 2016. http://www.americanbar.org/groups/real_property_trust_estate/resources/estate_planning/estate_planning_faq.html
3 “Maryland Intestacy Law.” The People’s Law Library of Maryland. 2015. https://www.peoples-law.org/maryland-intestacy-law