The case of the “Unknown Heirs”
There are instances when a lawyer is required to make efforts to “locate missing heirs” of an estate, and until the heirs are identified and located these efforts can be described as being to the “benefit of the unknown heirs”. This work has been done by lawyers for over one hundred years. One of the leading cases is from 1902, that of Neville v Benjamin (1902) 1 Ch 723, that sets out some of the steps that can be taken to obtain a “Benjamin order” in cases where an estate trustee is not able to distribute and finalize administration of an estate because of missing heirs. In popular culture, being a person identified as a “missing heir” has been the subject of much interest. “Big legacies awaiting lost heirs” was the premise of a segment on the Art Linkletter show, where he conducted a television search for missing heirs. The Linkletter show was broadcast in various forms from 1945 to 1970 and had huge audiences in the millions.
A 1965 article in the Madera California Tribune newspaper on the Linkletter search for missing heirs started with the attention getting line “Do you ever wish a long lost relative would leave you a legacy of a bundle of money?” One story featured was of a talented machinist who chose to live the life of a recluse, existing on a diet of dry cereals. It was also known he didn’t trust banks and that he preferred to store his money by hiding it in his house. He died at age 58 and was dead several days before someone made the discovery. The house was robbed of the cash, but the remaining business assets were sold in the estate sale. The business assets went to a sister of the deceased, who only learned of it from a neighbor after she heard it on the Linkletter show. Wouldn’t you want to be “found” if you were indeed “a missing heir”, whether by a lawyer or a television show?
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