Administering an Estate with Missing Beneficiaries

If you’ve ever been responsible for administering an estate, you’ll know that it can be a very long-winded process. There are a large number of tasks to complete, and many of these can be complicated by unforeseen circumstances. One possible complication is if you are unable to locate one or more beneficiaries.

In many situations, the personal representatives for the estate will be close family members of the person who has died, and any beneficiaries mentioned will be well known to them. Often, the personal representatives and the beneficiaries are the same people.

However, estates are not always this straight-forward. 

In some situations, a Will might name a beneficiary who is not known to the personal representatives. This could be:

  • An estranged family member.
  • A friend or partner who the person who has died may have lost touch with.
  • A charitable organisation.

If these beneficiaries are no longer contactable via the address listed in the Will, and if there are no up-to-date contact details in the papers of the person who has died, the beneficiaries might be considered to be missing.

It’s also possible for beneficiaries to be considered missing in cases where there is no Will and the estate is being administered according to the intestacy rules. This is more likely to occur in situations where someone dies without any obvious relatives. This might be because they didn’t have any children or siblings, or because their relatives have died before them. It also might be because they were estranged from their family. 

In these cases, the estate will typically be handled by a close friend or a professional. 

Administering an Estate with Missing Beneficiaries 1

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Seeking expert advice

If you’ve found yourself in a situation such as this, we’d strongly recommend speaking to a specialist probate solicitor. Personal representatives have a legal responsibility to ensure the estate they’re responsible for is distributed to the beneficiaries named in the Will – or to those entitled to inherit under the intestacy rules if there is no Will. 

If the personal representatives aren’t able to pass on a beneficiary’s inheritance, they may find themselves personally liable for the money the beneficiary was due should they ever come forward.

Speaking to a solicitor about how best to proceed in a case like this can help you to protect yourself from the possibility of future liability. 

What might a solicitor recommend?

The first steps will be to try all avenues to locate the beneficiary. If you haven’t already done so, you’ll need to ask all relatives and friends of the person who has died if they have any idea how to contact the beneficiary. You should also try and contact the missing beneficiary online.

If this doesn’t work, your solicitor might recommend that you use a specialist genealogist to try and track down the beneficiary. Though there are obviously additional costs involved in doing this, these will typically be covered by the estate. 

Your solicitor might also place a special advertisement known as a S27 notice in a newspaper local to where the beneficiary is last known to have lived. 

Sometimes, no matter how hard you have tried to locate a beneficiary, it might just not be possible. If it comes to this, you will need to discuss with your solicitor the most practical solution for moving forward. Not only will you want to consider the best use of estate funds, you’ll also need to weigh this up against the potential future liability to yourself and any other personal representatives should the beneficiary be found at a later date.

Solutions here can include holding the missing beneficiary’s funds in trust, taking out an insurance or indemnity policy, or even applying for a special type of court order. Your solicitor will be able to advise on what would be most appropriate course of action.

What if the beneficiary is a missing person?

In some situations, it may be that no one knows where the beneficiary is as they’re considered to be a missing person. 

Again, your solicitor will be able to advise more specifically on your situation if this is the case. However, generally speaking, your next steps are likely to be dependent on the legal steps those closest to the missing person have taken. 

If a guardian has been appointed to manage the missing person’s affairs, pursuant to the Guardianship (Missing Persons) Act 2017 (also known as Claudia’s law), you will usually be able to liaise with them to ensure the missing person’s share of the estate is held securely for them. 

Alternatively, if the court have granted a Presumption of Death certificate for the missing person, you should continue the administration of the estate in the same way as you would if the beneficiary had died. 

What if the beneficiary has died?

In the process of searching for a missing beneficiary, you may sadly discover that they themselves have died. If this is the case, how you should proceed will depend on when they died, and whether it was before or after the death of the owner of the estate you are administering.

If the beneficiary died before the owner of the estate, then any share of the estate they were entitled to will usually be distributed amongst the surviving beneficiaries. (If you are administering an estate on the basis of the intestacy laws, this flow chart will help you determine who will be entitled to a share of the estate). 

If the beneficiary died after the owner of the estate, then the inheritance they were entitled to will usually be passed to their own personal representatives to be distributed amongst their own beneficiaries along with the rest of their estate. 

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