Estate PlanninG

What Do I Do if I Can't Find a Beneficiary?

When you're the executor (personal representative) of someone's will or the trustee of their trust, you're obligated to distribute that person's money and property according to the document's terms to the designated beneficiaries. (Moving forward, we'll refer to the roles of executor and trustee throughout this article as the general term fiduciary.) Sometimes, though, you can't find the beneficiary, whether that's because of a family conflict or you've simply fallen out of touch. As the fiduciary, what should you do if this happens?

As a fiduciary, you must use reasonable diligence to locate a missing beneficiary. What's considered "reasonable" depends on the circumstances, including the efforts to find them and how much money or property is at stake.

At a minimum, a fiduciary should call the last known phone number and send notice of the estate or trust administration to the last known address. If this yields no results, the fiduciary should contact family members or friends for information, search social media, publish notice in the newspaper, check property records, and otherwise use their best efforts to locate the missing beneficiary.

If the value of property to be distributed to the missing beneficiary is very small, then the fiduciary will likely not be required to spend much of the estate or trust's money to locate the missing beneficiary. If the property value is significant, the fiduciary may have to take additional efforts to find the missing beneficiary to satisfy the reasonable diligence requirement. Such extra measures may include hiring a private investigator or using an heir search service.

Hire an heir search service

Heir search services are dedicated specialists to find missing beneficiaries. They employ forensic genealogists and estate investigators who conduct extensive searches throughout the United States or the world to locate missing beneficiaries. They often have access to additional records, such as birth, marriage, and death certificates, adoption, other court records, and genealogical databases.

Heir search services can provide the added benefit of verifying the beneficiary's identity to ensure that you, as the fiduciary, make distributions to the proper person and not someone pretending to be the beneficiary to take advantage of a fiduciary's ignorance.

If a professional heir search service cannot find the missing beneficiary, you can petition the court to allow you to make a preliminary distribution of money and property to the beneficiaries who have been located. The court will likely order that the missing beneficiary's property be held in trust for a certain period, as specified by state law, allowing time for the missing beneficiary to claim it. You may also be able to obtain indemnity insurance to protect you if a missing beneficiary later appears and makes a claim after the estate or trust has already been distributed.

Work with an experienced attorney

Locating a missing beneficiary can take considerable time and cause delays in an estate and trust administration. Meanwhile, beneficiaries who have been located and expect to receive their share can become impatient. In situations where a missing beneficiary adds a layer of complexity to an administration, it can be advantageous to hire a legal professional who has experience in navigating the demands of impatient beneficiaries while protecting your interests as the fiduciary.

Further, in cases where a missing beneficiary cannot be located and it becomes necessary to petition the court to allow a preliminary distribution to the known beneficiaries, using a legal professional's expertise of the state's laws and procedures can lead to a quicker resolution of the issue.

Being named as the fiduciary of a will or trust carries a significant responsibility to locate the beneficiaries and make distributions to them per the terms of the will or trust. When a beneficiary cannot be located, the fiduciary must be diligent in finding the beneficiary, including hiring a professional heir search service. We have the expertise and resources to help you navigate the additional complexities that come with a missing beneficiary. Contact us if you would like to discuss how we can help you with your administration or craft your own plan to provide your loved ones with a smooth administration.

Keep reading:

What Happens If a Loved One's Estate Planning Documents Can't Be Found?

What You Need To Do After A Loved One Dies

What to Do if You Can’t Get Ahold of Your Trustee

What Happens To My Spouse’s Debts After They Die?