What Happens If a Beneficiary Can’t Be Found?
A personal representative must make a reasonable effort to locate a missing beneficiary. If this does not produce any results, the personal representative should take steps to protect themselves, just in case the missing beneficiary comes forward at a later date.
Distributing an estate after death
When someone dies, their estate must be distributed to their beneficiaries. The beneficiaries are either named in the Will, or they are determined according to the intestacy laws. The intestacy laws are applied if the deceased died without a valid Will in place.
It is the job of the personal representative to make sure that the beneficiaries receive their inheritance. Where there is a Will, the personal representative is the executor (or executors) named in the Will. Where there is not a valid Will, the personal representative is usually the deceased’s next of kin. For the purposes of estate administration, they are known as the administrator.
The problem of a missing beneficiary
Sometimes, one or more beneficiaries cannot be found. This might happen if the beneficiary moved abroad or lost touch with the deceased. It might also happen if the deceased does not leave up-to-date contact details for the beneficiary. Or, it could be that the original beneficiary has died, but the Will is worded so that their offspring is entitled to the inheritance instead.
This is problematic for an executor or administrator. As a personal representative, you are personally liable for ensuring that the estate is distributed properly. If you do not find the beneficiary, you must take certain precautions before distributing the estate. Otherwise, you will have to pay the missing beneficiary out of your own pocket, should he/she later come forward to claim their inheritance.
How to find a missing beneficiary
That is why you should do everything in your power to locate the missing beneficiary. This includes:
Often, you can find a missing beneficiary just by speaking to the right people. Contact anyone that might have known the beneficiary and ask if they have any information. This may eventually lead you to the person you are looking for.
Checking births, deaths and marriages records
As part of your own research, you can check births, deaths and marriage records at the General Registry Office. The beneficiary may have married and changed their name. Or the beneficiary may have died. If so, you might need to find out if they have any living descendants.
Advertising in local and national newspapers
You can also put adverts in national newspapers, and newspapers local to the beneficiary’s last known location. You never know: the missing beneficiary or their friend/family member may see the advert, prompting them to make contact.
Employing a tracing agent/genealogist
Tracing agents can take the task of your hands, using their professional expertise to locate a missing beneficiary. You can use the estate funds to cover the cost. If you are yet to establish who the beneficiary is, then a genealogy expert may be required first.
What if a beneficiary still cannot be found?
If you take all these steps and still a beneficiary cannot be found, then you might be forced to distribute the estate. However, you must take steps to protect yourself first. Otherwise, you will have to pay the missing beneficiary’s share out of your own pocket, should he/she later be found. You must, therefore, consider at least one of the following options:
Get indemnity insurance
You can get missing beneficiary indemnity insurance. The policy would then pay the missing beneficiary their entitlement, should they later come forward and claim their inheritance. To be eligible, you must show that you have taken reasonable steps to find the beneficiary. The estate can cover the cost of the premium.
Hold onto the missing beneficiary’s share
You can hold onto the missing beneficiary’s share of the estate. However, you would need to keep it for 12 years, which is the limitation period for claiming a share of a deceased person’s estate. This option is typically preferred in small estates where the value of the missing beneficiary’s share is minimal.
Apply to court for a Benjamin Order
You can ask the court to decide how to distribute an estate where one or more beneficiaries cannot be found. This is known as a Benjamin Order. If the missing beneficiary later emerges, the personal representatives are completely protected. The downside is that a Benjamin Order is time-consuming and much more costly to the estate. Because of this, the known beneficiaries may not favour this option, especially as they will be liable if the missing beneficiary later comes forward. However, it can be preferrable in complex or valuable estates, and in situations where indemnity insurance is not appropriate.
Get a written agreement from the known beneficiaries
You can ask the known beneficiaries to sign a written agreement, stating that they will return the missing beneficiary’s share of the estate if he/she is located in the future. Yet this option carries a lot risk, as you cannot be certain that the beneficiaries will keep their side of the bargain. They may have spent all the money by the time the missing beneficiary is found.
Get expert legal advice
Each option has its own advantages and disadvantages. The right solution for you very much depends on the circumstances. Ultimately, it is essential that you put the right protections in place, as you do not want to be personally liable if a beneficiary is located after the estate has been distributed.
That is why we recommend getting expert legal advice if the estate administration is complicated by a missing or unknown beneficiary. Our solicitors can help you trace a beneficiary. If our search is inconclusive, we can discuss the options going forward, advising how best to protect yourself.
Probate solicitors Sunderland
If you would like help with a Probate application or the administration of an estate, call our Sunderland solicitors on 0191 567 7244 and we’ll be happy to help you. If you would rather contact us online, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and one of our team will be in contact with you shortly.