Missing heir and unclaimed inheritance

Ordinarily, when someone dies, their assets pass on to their heirs. Assets pass on to heirs via a Personal Representative, the person, bank, or entity in charge of distributing the deceased person’s assets. Usually, the Personal Representative is named in the deceased person’s will. For example, if someone with six adult children passes away, they may leave a will designating part of their assets to each of their six children—the Personal Representative would be in charge of making sure each child gets their fair share of the inheritance. But this example assumes that all six heirs are known, and easy to reach—at most, they are a phone call or email away. But what if one of those six adult heirs cannot be found? Indeed, sometimes heirs are not so easy to find; sometimes impossible. Does the missing heir automatically lose their inheritance? Or, does the inheritance hang in limbo until the missing heir shows up?

An Effort Has to Be Made to Find the Heir

The short answer to that question is the old adage, “if you snooze [for too long], you lose.” Generally, if an heir cannot be found, the Personal Representative of the estate has to make an earnest effort for a certain amount of time to find the missing heir. If the heir does not respond to the Personal Representative’s efforts in time, then the missing heir runs the risk of “snoozing” too long, and therefore “losing,” his or her rightful inheritance.  

The longer answer is that, if the Personal Representative truly does make an earnest effort to find the missing heir, but fails, then the court will get involved. The court gets involved by making its own effort to reach the missing heir. But first, the Personal Representative must sell the missing heir’s assets and give the money from the sale to the clerk of court. If possible, the court will then disburse the inheritance to the available heirs; in the example of the six adult heirs mentioned earlier, this means that the five available heirs would get their share of the inheritance without having to wait for the missing heir to show up. Then, once the amount is in the court’s hands, the state will do what it sees fit with the amount. What courts do with the money from a missing heirs’ unclaimed inheritance depends on the state.

How Florida Courts Locate Missing Heirs

In Florida, according to Florida Statute 733.816, there are two ways the court tries to reach missing heirs, each way depending on how much the assets are worth in dollars. First, if the assets in question are worth less than $500, then the court will simply post a notice on the courthouse door in hopes that the missing heir will see it and claim their inheritance. On the notice, the court will typically include the Personal Representative’s contact information, and, most importantly, the monetary value of the assets. Second, if the assets exceed $500 in value, the court will make a more concerted effort to reach the missing heir. In those cases, the court will post a notice in a county-circulating newspaper once per month for two months. The missing heir then has six months from the date of the first newspaper publication to respond. In both cases, if the missing heir does not respond to the court’s notices, the missing heir’s inheritance goes to the state. Or, if the missing heir has any issue (heirs) of his or her own, then the inheritance will go to those heirs. Otherwise, in Florida, a missing heir’s unclaimed inheritance goes directly into the State Education Fund.

But not all hope is lost for the missing heir, or their heirs, if any. In Florida, even after failing to respond to the court’s notices, whether on the courthouse door or in the county newspapers, a missing heir has ten years to reappear and claim their inheritance. But such a “snoozer,” may still be a “loser.” A missing heir in that situation cannot simply appear after years of disappearance and then walk home with their inheritance. Instead, the heir must appear at a hearing before the court where he or she will have a chance to convince the court why it should remove the assets from the state education fund, and give them back. But if the missing heir fails to do so, or fails to appear within ten years, then the state will keep the money in the education fund—for good.

But courts, including Florida courts, generally do not like to meddle in family matters like locating missing heirs. In fact, Florida courts tend to be very strict about requiring Personal Representatives to first make an “earnest effort” to find a missing heir before coming to the court. Courts behave this way because they generally prefer to keep the courts free of issues that parties can resolve on their own. So, unless the Personal Representative truly cannot find the missing heir on their own, courts prefer to stay out of the “missing heir search.” 

Responsibilities of a Personal Representative

But what does a Personal Representative have to do to ensure that their search was “earnest?” Well, let’s revisit the example of the six adult heirs, and one missing heir, at the beginning of this article. Let’s say that you are a Personal Representative for that family of six, and you have just been notified that one of the heirs, say, the eldest brother, is estranged—none of the missing heir’s family members have seen or heard from in many years. As the Personal Representative, you now have the duty to make an earnest effort to locate that eldest brother before taking the issue to the court. There are several ways you can do this: publish the information in a newspaper (like the court would); attempt to contact the missing heir with the best information available; surf social media; post ads online; or use internet “people search” engines, to find the missing heir. 

These are some simple ways the Personal Representative can search for the missing heir. A more reliable tool at the Personal Representative’s disposal is to have a skilled probate attorney ask the Social Security Administration for the missing heir’s last known address. Or, as a last resort, the Personal Representative can hire a personal investigator. But this is not always recommendable because personal investigators are often costly—both with time and money. In any event, before setting out to find a missing heir, it is crucial that Personal Representatives contact a skilled probate attorney to aid them in the process. If none of these efforts help find the missing heir, and that eldest brother is nowhere to be found, then, with the help of a skilled probate attorney, you might want to bring the court into the picture.