You have all seen commercials for various resources promising to show you the connections to your family’s past and, as a result, its very broad present. Often the commercials feature people who have supposedly used the service to find that their great great uncle was Abraham Lincoln or that their 3rd cousin half a dozen times removed is actually their neighbor, for example. Such miraculous stories of discovery are intriguing and, often, inviting.
Estate planning is all about family. I often joke that once you begin considering your own mortality, you must consider the mortality of everyone you know in order to complete your estate plan. If your intended beneficiaries predecease you, then who inherits? And then who? Generally you cut off the search for kindred people some time before genealogy would be helpful or necessary. You do this because typically you prefer to leave an inheritance only to people you know such as your children, parents, and siblings. But in small families it is possible that upon your death, your closest living relative will actually be quite far removed. Aside from simply the pleasure of knowing who is in your family and where they have come from, genealogy may also make it easier to find your “next of kin.”
It should be noted that it is almost never necessary to actually know who your next of kin would be, but often the “residual clause” of an estate plan states that if all named beneficiaries are deceased, then the next of kin shall inherit the estate. The paragraph is frequently inserted without any consideration as to who the next of kin would be or how to find that person.
When property goes unclaimed for a period of years, it “escheats” to the state, meaning that whoever has possession of the property must hand it over to the state. Often employers, financial institutions, and landlords give property to the state. Heir finders often search the records of unclaimed property and look to find potential heirs. However, heir finders may not charge more than 10% of the claim so, in many instances, it is not worth their while. California currently holds over $6 billion in unclaimed property in its coffers. To that end, it is possible that in your search for long lost relatives, you will find property for which you may make a claim! Beware that to do so, you must prove your claim through appropriate birth and death records.
As with anything involving searching deep into your family’s history, it is possible that you might find some unsavory secrets that were best left buried (pun intended). The Wall Street Journal recently ran a story about an amateur genealogist who found murderers and jail escapees in her mid-1800’s lineage! Other anecdotes in the story reveal bigamists, more murderers, witches, and falsified family legends. On second thought, maybe instead of a “next of kin” residual clause you may want to consider a family friend or a charitable cause!
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