What Rights Do Non-U.S. Heirs of Intestate Estate Have?
My cousin passed away and left an estate of $1.1 million plus. She had a current will which was conveniently missing at the time of her death due to shenanigans by the public guardian, and her attorney and priest. An old will was uncovered from 1961 which named her parents, who have been long deceased, as heirs. Now the system has decided that the estate will be divided up among the more than 30 heirs, most of whom live in Russia and Ukraine. They are non citizens of the US and have questionable whereabouts and suspicious documents identifying them, all conjured up by a third or fourth party “heir search” firm in Germany, and perhaps unscrupulous attorneys. This and other anomalies, and previous antics by her own attorney are greatly suspect. Does the statute provide for disbursement to foreign individuals or entities?
If someone dies without a will, or in the case of your cousin, with a will but with no remaining named beneficiaries, their estate passes under the rules of “intestacy.” Every state has different intestacy laws, but in general they dictate that the estate pass to the decedents closest relatives. In the absence of parents, children, grandchildren, a spouse or siblings, this would be cousins, and all cousins have the same standing, whether or not they are U.S. citizens. It’s up to the estate’s personal representative to determine who they are and it’s not uncommon to hire an heir search firm for this purpose. As a cousin, you have standing to challenge the findings of the heir search firm if you do indeed believe its results are fraudulent. You may want to start by hiring your own such firm to review the original findings.
Also, you state that a more recent will was “conveniently” missing when your cousin died. If you have a copy of it, you may be able to have it admitted as your cousin’s proper will. That depends on the circumstances and state law.
Getting on my soapbox, your story is a reason why we need to make executing wills much easier. The process, while designed to make sure that wills are thoughtful and valid, discourages many people from making or updating their wills. Why is it so easy to add a beneficiary to an bank, investment or retirement account and so hard to execute a will? Why can’t states set up systems for people to create wills on-line or distribute forms with check boxes for residents to complete much more easily. None of this may be as good or comprehensive as an attorney-created estate plan, but they would be a lot better than nothing.