When an estate executor or administrator deals with the winding up of someone’s affairs after their death, it is their job to distribute the net estate to the beneficiaries who are entitled to inherit.
Where a beneficiary cannot be located, it is important that the executor or administrator discharges their liabilities by doing all in their power to find them and, if they cannot be located, by taking adequate precautions to protect their position.
Why a beneficiary might be missing
If a Will has not been updated for a while, then it may be hard to find a current address for someone who is named as a beneficiary. The Will could also simply refer to ‘my children’, without specifying who they are or how many there are.
If someone has not left a Will then their estate will pass under the Rules of Intestacy to family members in strict order of priority. This can also make things difficult for the estate administrator who will be responsible for identifying exactly who is entitled to inherit.
Executor or administrator liability
The personal representative, either the executor or, where there is no Will, the administrator, has extensive responsibilities in dealing with the deceased’s affairs. They are bound to act in the best interests of the beneficiaries at all times and can be held personally liable for any losses to the estate that arise because of an error they have made.
This means that executors and administrators need to act with great care when a beneficiary cannot be located. Where an unknown or untraced beneficiary appears at a later date, they can make a legal claim for their share of the estate. Where the proper steps to locate the beneficiary were not taken, there is a risk that the executor or administrator could be personally liable for paying the beneficiary the inheritance to which they were entitled.
What to do when a beneficiary cannot be found
Going through the deceased’s papers and speaking to their friends and family may help establish if there is someone entitled to inherit. The executor or administrator is generally advised to place advertisements in the Gazette as well as in the local newspapers where the beneficiary was last known to live and where it is believed that they may be located.
There are agencies who specialise in tracing heirs. It is important to check that any agency you use is reputable as not all of them are.
If a beneficiary still cannot be located, it is advisable to seek legal advice about what to do next to ensure that you protect your position as executor or administrator. It is possible to take out an insurance policy that will provide cover in the event that a beneficiary does subsequently make a claim.
Alternatively, the money can be held in an account in case a beneficiary comes forward, with the remainder of the estate distributed to any other beneficiaries.
The court can be asked to make an order assuming that any missing beneficiary has died and allowing the estate to be distributed to the remaining heirs. Should a beneficiary subsequently come forward, then they will be able to claim their share of the estate from the other beneficiaries, however, the executor or administrator will be protected by the order.