What is a Missing Heir?

Laura M. Sands

A missing heir is the term used to describe a relative who has been willed a gift from a deceased relative, but who is unaware of her or his inheritance due to this individual’s whereabouts being unknown to the those in charge of distributing the deceased person’s estate. In attempting to find missing heirs, it is not uncommon for a probate court to discover that a beneficiary had little or no contact with the deceased prior to being named in that person’s will. Finding a missing heir can sometimes take years and some heirs are never located.

There are online databases that enable people to research and find their missing heirs.
There are online databases that enable people to research and find their missing heirs.

Locating a missing heir is not always an easy task. When traditional search methods fail to uncover a person’s whereabouts, a probate research investigator who specializes in finding missing heirs may be retained. Many such investigators commonly have international ties with other investigative resources, which is helpful since missing heirs may not necessarily reside in the same country of the probate court where a will is being examined.

As many wills are contested by other heirs and family members, simply locating a missing heir is not always a guarantee that an inheritance will be granted. Special investigators experienced in these matters are also sometimes hired to uncover evidence in an attempt to show why a missing heir should not benefit from a will. It is not unusual for such matters to take several years to settle in probate court, as the process of locating a missing heir is often followed by a lengthy court battle.

Jurisdictions may differ on how to proceed with a will in cases where an heir cannot be located. In some instances, laws may require that all assets intended for an heir be sold and the proceeds held in a government treasury account as unclaimed property. Due to technological advances, several such databases are available for online research by the public and many heirs have discovered unclaimed property by performing random searches on such websites.

Sometimes it is found that a missing heir was a child given up for adoption at birth, but still included in a relative’s will. In other cases, a missing heir may simply be a child living with her or his mother in another state who has been left an inheritance by a father who had little or no contact with the child or the child’s mother before passing away. There are a variety of possible scenarios explaining the existence of missing heirs, but most probate courts require that a diligent search be performed in an attempt to find such individuals before a will can be distributed.

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