28 January 2021

Finding lost beneficiaries when managing an estate

By Emma Langley, Solicitor, Hayes + Storr.

Personal representatives’ is the collective term for an executor or administrator of a deceased person’s estate. A personal representative is responsible for ensuring all rightful beneficiaries receive their share of an inheritance. This can be difficult if the beneficiaries are unknown or if there is no will (known as ‘intestacy’).

It is not uncommon for personal representatives to face difficulty tracking down some beneficiaries of an estate, especially if the will was written a long time ago.

Lost Beneficiaries

To comply with their legal duties, personal representatives must take all reasonable steps to trace beneficiaries. This could include:

  • Making enquiries with other beneficiaries and family members
  • Conducting searches of death or other public records
  • Conducting online research
  • Placing adverts calling for the lost beneficiary to come forward
  • Instructing a tracing agent

If reasonable steps have not been taken, a personal representative can find themselves personally liable to a claim against the estate by a lost beneficiary who later comes forward.

Unexpected beneficiaries

An unexpected beneficiary is someone who turns up when the personal representative was previously unaware of their existence or entitlement. This is most likely to happen in an intestacy situation or if there is a gift in a will to a class of people, (eg “my children”). If the estate has already been distributed, this can cause significant problems for a personal representative.

Protecting yourself against unexpected beneficiaries

If you are acting as a personal representative, you can avoid becoming personally liable to beneficiaries of whom you are unaware, by taking certain steps to protect yourself, these can include:

  • Publishing official notices advertising the death of the deceased and calling for beneficiaries to come forward
  • Instructing a genealogist at the outset to carry out a full investigation and prepare a full family tree
  • Obtaining missing beneficiary indemnity insurance

Notices should be placed in the London Gazette, as well as a newspaper local to the deceased. There are important rules to adhere to when placing notices, including specific wording, and allowing sufficient time for potential beneficiaries to respond.

Disgruntled dependants

You might find yourself faced with a disgruntled dependant or family member who has been excluded from the will or does not benefit under the intestacy rules. They may be entitled to bring a claim for a share of the estate. If you as personal representative have already distributed the estate, you could find yourself personally liable if certain steps and precautions were not taken.

If you would like further advice, call: 01328 863231 and ask to speak to someone in our private client department.

This article is for general information only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Please note that the law may have changed since this article was published.