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Beneficiaries Blog Probate

A Nigerian Prince Leaves You Millions!!!

A Nigerian Prince Leaves You Millions!!! by Tom Sciacca

{Read in 6 minutes}  Wow. Really? You really clicked on a link that talked about a Nigerian prince leaving you millions of dollars? You are a brave soul. I mean I’m glad you’re here, but really …and did you just click AGAIN on the link in this paragraph?!

Very often in my practice I deal with people who are beneficiaries of Estates; people who are either named under a person’s Will or people who are entitled to inherit as next of kin because the deceased died without a Will. Sometimes these inheritances are expected — from a close relative like a parent, spouse, sibling, or maybe even good friend. But sometimes people get notified that they are the beneficiary of an Estate that they did not anticipate, or perhaps even a person they never heard of.

How do you know if an inheritance is real? Well, the answer is pretty simple. For those assets that pass to a beneficiary through an Estate, the Executor will provide the beneficiary with a document called “Notice of Probate,” which formally advises the beneficiary of the existence of the Will, attaches a photocopy, and provides the information on the Surrogate’s Court handling the Will.

Remember that anything filed in the Surrogate’s Court is a matter of public record, so a person can simply visit the Courthouse and confirm the existence of the Will and the amount of the inheritance, in the record room of the courthouse. Often, this does not even require the assistance of an attorney.

Those people who are listed as beneficiaries directly on life insurance policies or retirement accounts can often contact the company directly. To do so, they will need the Social Security number of the deceased, which can readily be found on a death certificate. The insurance company or brokerage firm can confirm the existence of the accounts, although they may not be willing to discuss percentages and dollars with the beneficiary by telephone. They will, however, mail a package to the beneficiary directly.

Every once in a great while, you hear a story about someone’s long-lost uncle or cousin leaving them money. These stories are wonderful to fantasize about, but they actually happen very rarely. Personally, every day when I get home, I check the mailbox to see if I’ve gotten a Surrogate’s Court notice advising me that I am about to inherit money from a relative I’ve never heard of. It’s the best of both worlds. It’s all of the inheritance with none of the mourning for an unknown relative.

How does a situation like this play out? Well, here in New York, we are fortunate to have people come here from all over the country and all over the world. Sometimes people move away from the family’s traditional home and set up a new life here, losing relationships with people back home. For example, I personally have been involved in cases in the Surrogate’s Court where a woman died without a Will, and the next of kin who inherited the Estate testified that they were her cousins (the deceased’s grandmother and their grandmother were sisters), and they had never met or even heard of the deceased. Because of the blood relation and the absence of the Will, the Court distributed the Estate (to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars) to them.

– Insider tip: very often remote next-of-kin learn of the Court proceeding when a genealogical search company contacts them and offers to prove their relationship to the deceased – for a large percentage of their inheritance as the company’s fee. While this sort of proposal may be legitimate (again, check the Surrogate’s Court records to confirm that an actual Estate exists and the value of any potential claims), next-of-kin with the means to do so may pay substantially less in legal fees paying by the hour. Educate yourself and make the best choice available to you!

The Court will hold a hearing known as a kinship hearing, where the Court will take testimony to prove not only that the people in question are related to the deceased, but also that there is not someone any more closely related to the deceased who will have priority to inherit. For example, if the deceased had living parents, then grandparents, aunts, uncles, first cousins, and first cousins once removed will not be entitled to inherit anything.

What’s the moral of the story? If you receive notice of an inheritance, be wary about whether or not it is valid; however, it’s worth looking into it to see if it is. Most such documents are available as a matter of public record, and if you don’t know how to do that, perhaps a brief consultation with a Trusts and Estates attorney may help point you in the right direction. It may be the best money that you have ever spent.

For more information on this topic, please contact me.