Friday, August 29, 2008
Locating heirs and beneficiaries is often a difficult task. The following excerpt from an outline by Lori J. Perlman, Esq. is reprinted with permission from the "Practical Skills Seminar on Probate and Administration of Estates," October 2006 Coursebook, published by the New York State Bar Association, One Elk Street, Albany, New York 12207.
Interview decedentʼs relatives, friends and neighbors; doormen and landlord, review decedent s address book and mail; a family bible sometimes contains a list of births and deaths on the front or back cover; check the Surrogate s Courts for records of known family members - distributees may have been listed as interested parties; birth and death certificates - give the names of an individual s parents; marriage records; medical records that may list next of kin; church baptismal records often list god-parents who may have information; death notices in newspapers; if family has a relationship with a particular funeral director, funeral director s records; cemetery records (a relative may be paying for perpetual care of a grave) and tombstones of decedent s family; census records; immigration records; social clubs or religious organizations of which decedent was a member; and professionals (decedent s doctors, accountant, lawyer, etc.).
Keep copies of any correspondence you send, and keep notes concerning any persons you contact, as you may need such information to document the scope and diligence of your search.
If none of the above methods is successful, private investigative search firms and genealogical experts can be hired to perform a search for heirs.
Once the distributees are identified, it will be necessary to locate them. Although it is not essential to find distributees whose whereabouts or identity are unknown at the time letters are sought (since service of process may be dispensed with upon such distributees), a diligent search will have to be performed. Uniform Rule 207.16(d). In addition, it will be necessary to conclusively establish the identity of the distributees before the estate is distributed. If distributees are not found at the time of an accounting, process will have to be served upon the unknowns by publication (SCPA 307), and their share of the estate will likely have to be deposited with the Commissioner of Finance until the lost heir is found and can commence a proceeding to withdraw his or her share (SCPA 2223-2225). It is extremely helpful to have the lost heir s date of birth and social security number, as many persons with the same or similar name may be located in a search. In addition to the sources used in identifying the heir, the following sources may be helpful: decedent s old address books; old telephone directories; forwarding addresses at former residences; and advertisements in local newspapers. Government Sources include: Social Security Department, which will forward a letter prepared by an attorney to a missing heir to the last known address, but will not provide you with any information concerning the lost heir other than whether the individual is known to be dead. You should send a cover letter explaining your situation and including the missing heir s name, date of birth and social security number, and enclose the letter to the heir in an unsealed envelope. Also the Bureau of Vital Statistics or the Motor Vehicle Bureau may provide an address or forward a letter to the individuals address. An inquiry to a branch of the armed forces may also be of use if you are aware of the branch in which the missing heir served.
Lexis-Nexis is also a good resource for conducting searches for the location of distributees once you have the name of the individual. You can search through the People Pages library, judgments and liens library, property ownership library, etc.
An excellent guide to conducting a search is found in a New York Law Journal article prepared by former King s County Surrogate Bloom, among others, entitled A Step-by-Step Guide to Conducting a Diligent Search. NYLJ, Feb. 8, 1994, at 1, column 1. A chart beginning on page 2 of the article provides contact information for several government agencies.
Some genealogical researchers who have been used by counsel to the Public Administrator in the past include: Jaisan, Inc in New York (http://www.jaisaninc.com); Dennis Langel Investigations/Genealogy Research Corp in Huntington, New York http://www.findheirs.com/); Laurie Thompson in New York (490 West End Avenue New York, NY 10024, 212-724-1817).
Online resources. There are many resources for locating heirs on the web, some more successful than others. Most are able to locate addresses and telephone numbers, and some provide more detailed searches for free. Non-public information is not on the web. Some sources for locating missing heirs (some free or partially free) include:
www.ci.nyc.ny.us and http://home2.nyc.gov/html/records/html/vitalrecords/home.shtml (for a New York city decedent) and http://www.health.state.ny.us/vital_records/ for New York residents outside of New York City.;
http://www.ssa.gov (Social Security Administration online);
http://vitalrec.com (identifies where to search for vital records, with a link to Ancestry.com's search engine);
http://www.Ancestry.com (search for current address, Social Security death index, census, vital statistics and links to other sources);
http://www.knowx.com (public information search) [Update: KnowX was retired in summer 2017. A possible replacement service is http://backgroundchecks.org/?]; http://www.docusearch.com (offers many free searches and locate searches, DMV driver & vehicle searches, telephone record searches, financial & bank searches, and criminal & property record searches); http://www.surnameweb.org/ (surname search, with a links to many other web pages and About.com s genealogy page); http://www.cyndislist.com/ (a list of genealogical webpages); http://www.gensource.com/ifoundit/ (another list of web pages); www.semaphorecorp.com/wdtg/jump.html (provides ability to track people who have moved, changed their names, e-mail addresses or web pages).