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What happens if you can’t find a beneficiary?

28th July 2022

Did you know there are currently 168 unclaimed estates with the surname “Smith”, 252 for individuals who died in Birmingham and 42 for the people who were born in 1900.

Alice Hudson, a Tax Executive in our Exeter office, looks at what happens if you are asked to be an Executor in a will and you cannot find a beneficiary to an estate.

Acting as executor of an estate under a Will can be complicated and demanding at the best of times, but this can be particularly challenging when you can’t track down one of the beneficiaries.

If you are the executor of an estate, you have a duty to make sure all the money in the estate is distributed to the right people, anyone who is entitled to inherit money from the estate is called a beneficiary.

It can be the case that a will has been written many years before someone dies and a named beneficiary in the will has lost touch with the deceased. 

In this scenario, it is important to take specialist advice. If a beneficiary doesn't receive what they're entitled to from the estate, the executor or administrator may be liable to pay this themselves.

Firstly, steps should be taken to locate the beneficiary. If this proves unsuccessful, steps should then be taken to protect yourself as executor in case the beneficiary later shows up and asks for what they are rightly owed. 

Steps to find the beneficiary:

  • ask the deceased’s friends and relatives if they know where the beneficiary might be. 
  • Instructing a genealogist company to help determine whether there are next of kin or a tracing agency to locate the missing beneficiary (this can be paid for out of the estate).
  • advertise in a local newspaper or the London Gazette.  Such notices give any potential creditor or beneficiary two months to make a claim on the estate. 

If this fails:

  • One option can be to hold back the money, if they ever get in touch this can then be paid to them. 
  • Distribute the funds to the known beneficiaries and get a written agreement from each of them confirming that if the missing beneficiary ever comes forward, they will return their share of the money. This should be done with an indemnity policy. 
  • Take out an insurance policy that will pay out to the missing beneficiary if they are traced. The estate can then be distributed to the other beneficiaries without the worry they may have to pay some back in the future.
  • As a last resort a Benjamin Order can be applied for. This is a court order that makes the presumption the beneficiary has died, and allows the Executors to distribute the estate on that basis.  If the beneficiary ever comes forward the executor is protected by the court order. 

Further information

You can find more information on our Estate Planning and Probate Services page.

If you would like to discuss probate and about keeping good records, please contact a member of our Estate Planning & Probate team who will be pleased to talk to you.

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