Finding the missing link: What is the process of locating a missing beneficiary

An estate executor or administrator deals with the winding up of someone’s affairs after their death. Their job involves distributing the net estate to the beneficiaries entitled to inherit. We look at the process of locating a missing beneficiary.

When a beneficiary cannot be located, the executor or administrator must discharge their liabilities by doing all in their power to find them. If they cannot be located, adequate precautions are taken to protect their position as executor.

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 a named beneficiary. The Will could also simply refer to ‘my children’, without specifying who they are or how many there are.

If someone dies without a Will their estate passes under the Rules of Intestacy. The estate passes to family members in strict order of priority. This in turn causes difficulty for the estate administrator who is responsible for identifying exactly who is entitled to inherit.

Executor or administrator liability

The executor or 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. They assume personal liability for any losses to the estate that may arise due to an error on their behalf.

Therefore 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. There are risks if the proper steps to find a missing beneficiary are not taken. The executor or administrator may be personally liable for paying a beneficiary any 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. Place advertisements in local newspapers where the beneficiary was last known to live and where it is believed they may be located.

There are agencies who specialise in tracing heirs. Always check that any agency you use is reputable, as not all of them are.

If a beneficiary remains unfound, it is advisable to seek legal advice about what to do next. Be sure to protect your position as executor or administrator. You may choose to take out an insurance policy that provides cover in the event that a beneficiary does subsequently make a claim.

Alternatively, money can be held in an account in case a beneficiary comes forward. The remainder of the estate is then distributed to any other beneficiaries.

The court can be asked to make an order. This assumes that any missing beneficiary has died and allows 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. The executor or administrator will be protected by the order.

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