Estates & Wills & Trusts

Tracing missing beneficiaries a headache for executors

By Staff

Frequently checking your will improves the chance your estate trustee will be able to find all your beneficiaries after your death, Toronto trust and estate litigator Felice Kirsh tells

Kirsh, a partner with Schnurr Kirsh Oelbaum Tator LLP, says she often deals with estates in which trustees struggle to locate missing or misidentified heirs.

“It happens more frequently than you would think,” she says. “It’s important to name your beneficiaries correctly and review your will every few years to see if those people still make sense. If you think your estate trustee will need help locating someone, then you can add notes to let them know how to contact the person after your death.”

Kirsh says problems typically arise when a testator loses contact with a friend or family member long after naming them in the will.

In other cases, issues arise when a testator uses a beneficiary’s nickname or simply gets the individual’s name wrong.

Despite advances in communications technology, it’s still possible for people to disappear off the grid, says Kirsh.

“Sometimes people go missing. People change their names and can’t be found,” she says. “But whether they’ve been left $5,000 or 50 per cent of the estate, the obligation to find the person is the same.

“You can’t just throw your hands up and say, ‘Oh well,’” Kirsh adds.

She says estate trustees have a number of options for locating missing beneficiaries including conducting a search themselves or hiring a specialist such as a private investigator.

“Ultimately, if you can’t find a person, typically the money is paid into court,” Kirsh says.

Things can get complicated when individuals die intestate without a spouse or any close family. The help of “heir tracers” or the province’s Public Guardian and Trustee is frequently needed in these cases, Kirsh says.

“Most people have a relative somewhere, although they may be far removed,” Kirsh says. “There's a misconception that it all reverts to the Crown but that generally happens as a very last resort.”

"Either way, it’s another reason to make a will,” she adds.

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