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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Robert Gordon Price began the practice of law in the small northern Ontario mining community of Kirkland Lake in 1952 when he joined his uncle Bruce Williams, and the Williams and Price law firm had its beginning. Bob, as he was known to friends and colleagues would practice law for over 65 years until his passing in Toronto on November 26, 2017 at the age of 92.
In or around the time Bob began practicing law, the International Law Commission began working on the issue of diplomatic and consular relations. After more than ten years of international preparations and after a discussion on the draft articles, countries proceeded to a Conference on Consular Relations, which was attended by delegates of 95 states. The Conference adopted the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations which was signed on 24 April 1963 and came into force on 19 March 1967. Article 37 provides that a country must “without delay” notify consular officers if a person dies while away in another country or has a guardian or trustee appointed over him or her. From this, certain international obligations would flow.
Around the same time, a miner, who was originally from Poland, died in Kirkland Lake. He died without a Will and his family in Poland had to be identified, located, and contacted. Arrangements were made in regard to the funeral, the body, and the estate. No one was quite sure how to proceed given the new treaty obligations, but the Polish Ambassador was put in contact with Bob. For Bob, it was a beginning of a niche law practice on international estates inheritance and heir locate in over 15 countries. Bob soon developed a practice where he was involved with almost all estates in Canada with a connection to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
Part of Bob’s legacy are the international relationships that he built over many years. As international relations between countries continue to evolve and change, the relationships Bob established are even more important today.
Today, Hull & Hull LLP is working with Bob’s former colleagues around the world by assisting clients in solving complex and difficult problems involving international estate inheritance matters.
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April 21, 2017 marked one year since the death of the beloved recording artist, Prince. We have previously blogged about the legal issues surrounding Prince’s Estate that have emerged since his death. Although more than a year has now passed, the Estate continues to be engaged in litigation.
According to media reports, producer George Ian Boxill tried to release an EP containing previously unreleased songs by Prince to coincide with the first anniversary of his death. Boxill asserted that he had the right to release the music. In a lawsuit commenced by Paisley Park Enterprises, Prince’s Estate disagreed and alleged that Boxill was in breach of the recording agreement that he had signed with Prince.
The Estate was initially successful in blocking Boxill’s attempts to release the EP of new music. However, according to a new report in TMZ, Boxill has now filed additional legal documents that state that the unreleased music was not the subject of a nondisclosure agreement.
Separately, as we have previously blogged, Prince died without a Will and any known children, resulting in claims from a number of possible heirs.
According to a recent news report, the Minnesota judge presiding over the proceedings had indicated that he would not make a declaration regarding the heirs of Prince’s Estate until appeals by other potential heirs whose claims had been rejected were allowed to run their course. Lawyers for Prince’s sister and half-siblings have now argued that this delay will unnecessarily increase costs and hinder the proper administration of the Estate.
We have previously blogged about the importance of carefully addressing issues regarding intellectual property and any possible rights the estate may have after the testator’s death in a testator’s estate plan. Deceased writers, musicians and other artists may be parties to agreements that bind their estates and affect the rights and control over their intellectual property.
It is generally advisable for drafting solicitors to ensure that such legal documents are reviewed as part of a creative professional’s estate planning. It may also be prudent to obtain the advice of a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property law, to ensure that the estate plan adequately addresses any possible rights the estate may have after the testator’s death. Disputes over the beneficial ownership and control of a testator’s intellectual property can result in protracted and expensive litigation.
The legal issues surrounding Prince’s Estate reiterate the importance of careful estate planning while the testator is still alive. Lack of certainty regarding the beneficiaries of the estate, the deceased’s intentions and the property/rights of the estate can significantly increase the risk that the estate will become embroiled in protracted litigation.
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The 2015 movie, Woman in Gold, brought to the mainstream the Nazi appropriation of art throughout Europe and Russia, and the various art Restitution Board proceedings to repatriate art to their proper owner or heir. For devotees of art, history, and estates, restitution of art continues to appear in the mainstream media providing emotional stories behind beautiful pieces of art, and the steps taken by estate representatives to recover property.
In 2008, the heirs of Saemy Rosenbaum and Isaak Rosenberg (the “Estate“) submitted a request for the return of the 1526 Hans Wertinger painting titled Bildnis Pfalzgraf Johann III (Portrait of ElectorPalantine Johan III).
Apparently, the Nazi Government required the owners, who were art dealers in Frankfurt, to sell the painting in 1936, and place the proceeds of sale into a Nazi Government bank account. The painting ended up in the hands of an art collector in 1948, who bequeathed it to a museum in Stuttgart, Germany.
The claim for restitution appears to be based on the premise that, although the painting was sold, the owners were not free to make arms-lengths transactions, nor to use the proceeds freely. An interesting read in the Economist, discusses the process of claiming looted artwork, alleging that it is often opaque, ad-hoc, expensive, and uncertain, given the fact that ownership records may be patchy.
Nonetheless, researchers at the museum have now been able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Portrait of ElectorPalantine Johan III was in fact stolen from the original owners. Therefore, the museum has since returned the looted artwork to the Estate.
As a WWII pay officer in the Canadian military, my paternal grandfather met a British woman on the beach when he was stationed in the south of England. They married soon after the War and retired in England in the mid-1960s. My grandfather died in the early 1990s; when my step-grandmother, Tessa, died in 2008, in her Will she left her house to my father and aunt.
If there were no Will, Tessa’s estate could have contributed to the British government’s coffers. In that circumstance, a probate research firm could have played a role.
Title Research is one of the firms highlighted in yesterdays blog about "heir hunters". Its services include: searches for missing beneficiaries, heirs, and legal documents (such as marriage, birth and death certificates back to the 1800s); asset research to value, verify and find missing or unknown assets; missing beneficiary indemnity insurance; probate valuations; and will searches to determine that the Will is the deceased’s last will.
If Tessa had died intestate, Title Research, and other firms, could have located her heirs around the world. Alternatively, if the estate trustee had questions about the value of the estate assets, or had the trustee not known the whereabouts of the beneficiaries, it could have enlisted a search firm’s services as some anecdotes suggest.
Potentially trustees can protect their personal liability by engaging a firm that has a best practices endorsement of Britain’s Law Society. It seems that an estate need not just have ties to the UK, but the extent of a firm’s expertise in a specific jurisdiction would have to be assessed.
Interestingly, some of the detective work can be done by amateur sleuths: www.findmypast.com and www.ancestry.co.uk allow access to census data from the 1800s and a host of other historical information. If genealogy is in your blood, it’s a place to start. And, as one UK law firm suggests, it might be advisable to do some of your own investigating.
In Scotland for my honeymoon, I encountered a few different “estates”. Hiking the West Highland Way – averaging about 12 miles a day – we passed Blackmount Lodge, in the Bridge of Orchy. The lodge, owned by the Fleming family (of James Bond fame) sits on the edge of an idyllic loch. It took a day to walk across the estate.
Fellow walkers from Britain were interested to learn that I work in estate litigation. After sorting out differences in our terminology, they asked if “heir hunters” exist in Canada. I was intrigued.
While I still do not know the extent of “heir hunting” here, I learned that Heir Hunters is a BBC series that follows probate detectives who look for distant relatives of people who have died without making a will. I have not heard of a similar program in North America.
Several UK firms track down missing relatives: Fraser and Fraser and Title Research are two examples. About 545,000 people die in Britain every year and half of them do not have a will. As in Ontario, there are rules in Britain which dictate that when people die intestate, their estate passes to the deceased’s legal next of kin. In Britain, if there is no family, the estate falls to the Crown. The Guardian claims that £10 million to £20 million falls to the government every year because there is no one to claim the estate. Heir hunters locate the next of kin and alert them to their inheritance; there is a finder’s fee of up to 25% of the amount.
Many people in Canada can trace their roots to the United Kingdom. Estate practitioners, if advising estate trustees, would be well served to keep “heir hunting” firms in mind.
Thank you for reading. Enjoy your day.
Listen to Tracking Down Heirs
This week on Hull on Estates, Diane Vieira and Rick Bickhram discuss the issue of when an estate trustee is responsible to search for potential heirs to an estate.
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