Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog

Editor: Gerry W. Beyer
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Friday, August 29, 2008

How to locate heirs and beneficiaries

Question_markLocating 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. 

Identifying Distributees

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.  


Locating Distributees

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.  


Additional Resources

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.superpages.com and http://www.anywho.com (search for current addresses in US and conduct reverse telephone directory searches);

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).


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Dear Sir,

Cabinet H&H International Probate and heirs researching firm in the Arab World. We are one of the Arab leading firms of genealogists. Based in Tunis we have over 10 highly trained staff, as well as agents and correspondents throughout the Arab world. We specialize in probate research, We can also help you to find missing heirs and beneficiaries, obtain copies of certificates, help you to administer an estate,
as well as calculating how an estate (Islamic chariaa),
intestacy or trust should be distributed.

If you are interested, our experience in investigative procedure conducts probate research to prove the entitlement.

Kind Regards


Posted by: MOEZ BEN GHALBA | Oct 3, 2008 2:17:41 AM

A neat little article containing a wealth of ideas and suggestions for research enabling the tracing of missing heirs. As someone who has been tracing missing heirs for nearly thirty years, I am still amazed at the different and new sources of information people can still come up. However I would still argue that heir tracing should be left to the heir tracer who can undertake the service at no cost to the estate and if necessary provide a free genealogical report enabling a distribution to go ahead whether or not their are any beneficiaries. Whilst the writer of the article displays a deep and wide knowledge of the possible resources available,it becomes a little more difficult if you are working one cases in India, Nigeria or Goa as my firm has been doing during the past three months.

Posted by: Phillip Harker | Oct 9, 2008 4:28:58 PM

Finding a missing inheritance is so expensive, and hard to prove if we do find it. And a missing heir equally challenging. It looks like the professional heir finders, or missing inheritance or probate research firms are our best bet.

Posted by: Geof Sadler | Mar 18, 2016 7:47:11 AM

How to locate heirs and beneficiaries... It looks like finding a missing inheritance is better left to the professionals - professional heir finders, missing heir finders, missing inheritance services or probate research companies.

So a company that specializes in identifying, tracing and locating missing heirs or unknown heirs and unknown beneficiaries - will also identify and locate missing inheritance assets, or unclaimed assets. People that have a missing inheritance and need to recover unclaimed assets rarely get any help from relatives unfortunately.

Let's face it, no matter how smart we think we are, Non of us are trained as expert genealogists or international probate researchers. The expertise of a probate research company is usually needed - a firm that really specializes in missing heirs and unclaimed inheritances, recommended by probate and estate attorneys. Top probate and estate attorneys, not just out of law school. Another good resource - American Research Bureau, ARB, www.arb.com, or maybe www.heirfinder.com. And they do the initial probate research investigation, probate & estate research, at no charge to heirs. That's good enough for most people who have a missing or unclaimed inheritance.

I'd also like to know that the heir finder or probate research investigation firm I choose is well connected, with a good reputation, providing evaluations to attorneys, trust officers and estate administrators, who are identifying and locating potential heirs and beneficiaries.

For me, that's the key. Anyone that's entitled to a share of an unclaimed estate, and is missing some of those assets, is entitled to help from a top firm that has years of experience specializing in missing inheritance assets... and in identifying, locating, and tracing missing heirs or unknown heirs and beneficiaries. If they can locate missing heirs, then they can locate missing inheritances or unclaimed inheritances.

Posted by: Geof Sadler | Apr 1, 2016 7:39:40 PM

I don't know where to look for my late father assets. I need help how or where to trays.

Posted by: mochaeli jimmy mokoena | Jun 1, 2016 12:07:29 PM

@ mochaeli, what have you done so far? I, like you, am in search of a deceased relatives assets. Thank you, and good luck!

Posted by: Dee | Feb 19, 2017 2:43:52 PM

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