These are just a few examples of cases that illustrate the message of this forum. There are files upon files of similar cases.
Counsel’s Letter to the Public Administrator
This letter provides important insights into the current process, detailing a specific case which pitted an Administrator against an heir hunting firm (Note: See Legislative Framework, Exhibit E (Click Here)).
When “Heirs” Are, In Fact, Not Heirs
The Matter of the Estate of John S. Demko is an example of how a thorough and scrupulous investigation is the only way to uncover the full and uncompromised truth in matters of rightful heirs.
When Mr. Demko’s true heir proved to be uncooperative with an heir hunter, the heir hunter went “on the hunt” to find – and contract with – other relatives to file claims against the estate. Dubious of the hurriedly filed claims, the estate’s attorney took the time to conduct an exacting and thorough search.
The documentation shown was used to invalidate the false claim made by the heir hunter’s attorney. In the end, the truth won out and the rightful heir received her inheritance.
Not So Fast: A Case in Point
What happens when alleged heirs line up before the search for legitimate inheritors even begins? That’s what occurred upon the passing of John A. Sward. The attorney representing the personal representative of Mr. Sward’s estate, Gregory H. Zogran, had not yet begun the process of searching for beneficiaries when he received claims filed on behalf of a list of alleged heirs. It turned out the attorney for the “heirs,” Edward B. Cohen, was working on behalf of an “heir hunter” company, Kemp & Associates.
Their rush to settle claims raised a red flag with attorney Zogran. As the attorney representing the person responsible for ensuring an accurate and complete distribution of Mr. Sward’s estate to all rightful heirs, he wanted to be thorough and fair.
Knowing that Mr. Cohen represented the interests of his primary client, Kemp & Associates, and not the legitimate heirs, attorney Zogran was not ready to simply accept Mr. Cohen’s list of inheritors without performing his own due diligence. Over the vigorous protests of attorney Cohen, Zogran called in Cliff Von Langen of Von Langen, LLC, an experienced forensic genealogist.
Attorney Cohen and his “heir hunter” client had an incentive to produce purported heirs quickly, as their compensation depended on a percentage of any inheritance money collected. Neither the attorney nor the heir hunter company had incentive to question the information provided by alleged heirs, nor did they have a legal obligation to provide attorney Zogran or the court with the name or whereabouts of any potential heir. They were remaining tight lipped unless and until each purported heir agreed to pay a percentage of their inheritance to the heir hunters.
Von Langen proceeded with the deliberate process of identifying and locating legitimate heirs to Mr. Sward’s estate. Although attorney Cohen continued to protest Von Langen’s efforts, neither he nor his client, Kemp & Associates, was willing to indemnify attorney Zogran against any claims arising from their representations.
At one point Von Langen’s research uncovered that attorney Cohen’s claim filed on behalf of one of the alleged heirs was suspect. Von Langen advised attorney Zogran that Cohen should be required to produce a birth certificate or adoption papers as proof of his alleged heir’s interest. Attorney Cohen eventually acknowledged that the heir hunters had erred, and the purported “heir” was not, in fact, an heir-at-law.
Von Langen also received an email from a representative of the heir hunters, Kemp & Associates, stating, “I’ve reviewed your report and compared it to the research that we have conducted. There are a number of potential maternal claimants that are either partially or not reflected on our chart. These are primarily claimants that Kemp and Associates does not represent…”
In other words, their list of heirs produced by the heir hunters was far from complete. If attorney Zogran had simply accepted their work, he might have faced a complicated claim against the estate should a legitimate heir come forward at a later date.
This is another illustration of the problems associated with a “rush to judgment” promoted by heir hunters in inheritance cases. Their eagerness to cash in at the expense of claimants may cause legitimate heirs to be overlooked and left out.
More Than Meets the Eye
As the estate administrator for the Estate of Joan M. Neshyba, Catherine N. Wylie was presented with a long list of apparent heirs who had been located and “confirmed” by Kemp & Associates, Inc., an “heir hunter” firm. The claims of the individuals on the list were filed by Attorney David Dexel, hired for the purpose by Kemp & Associates.
However, Ms. Wylie was skeptical. The heir hunters and attorney Dexel had peppered her with 108 documents and prepared extensive family trees on behalf of their clients. What they did not reveal to Ms. Wylie was the fact that the rush to file claims was due, in part, to the fact that their compensation was tied to contracts with the potential inheritors securing a percentage of any inheritance money collected. The quicker they could settle, the faster they would be paid.
Ms. Wylie obtained a court order for an independent review of the research performed by Kemp & Associates. She hired Von Langen, LLC, a nationally respected genealogy firm, to conduct the review. Attorney Dexel had no objection – he had worked with Cliff Von Langen successfully on past estates.
Von Langen found the information produced by the heir hunters was riddled with errors and omissions. In order to address those many deficiencies and discrepancies so as to properly account for all the heirs, further research was necessary and additional documents were compiled for both the maternal and paternal moieties.
Von Langen discovered many heirs who were not disclosed on the heir hunter’s family trees, while other heirs listed as deceased were found to be very much alive. The heir hunter’s family trees misidentified certain persons who had predeceased with issue who needed to be accounted for, while other deceased persons were shown to have been survived by issue. Further research was necessary with respect to predeceased issue.
As a result of Von Langen’s research it was learned that the heir hunters had contacted certain heirs who had not agreed to the heir hunter’s terms; consequently, those heirs were not disclosed on the heir hunter’s family trees. Von Langen continued to find more heirs who were never contacted by the heir hunters, time-consuming research that was further complicated by the unreliable information that was previously provided.
At the conclusion of this assignment, Von Langen had identified in excess of two dozen additional heirs who were previously undisclosed on the genealogical charts submitted by the heir hunters. He provided accurate and complete maternal and paternal genealogical charts, listed all of Ms. Neshyba’s surviving and post-deceased heirs (including their contact information), and an inventory of Proof of Heirship documents as evidence to support his findings.
It became clear that the heir hunters had financial motive for attempting to effect a hastened distribution through misleading information. This could have easily led to complicated and expensive litigation should a rightful heir come forward at a later date.
Who to Trust?
The distribution of the Estate of George Lacy seemed to go smoothly. The estate’s personal representative had distributed estate assets to the only known heir, Mr. Lacy’s niece. But Terri Sherman, attorney for the personal representative, had a nagging worry that the distribution was made before all the information about the estate’s potential heirs had been gathered.
She was right. Shortly after most of the estate assets had been distributed, a new claim was filed on behalf of another woman who also claimed to be a niece of the deceased. The attorney who filed the claim was acting on behalf of International Missing Heir Finders, LLC, an heir hunter who had located the “missing niece.”
Not willing to take the new claim at face value, Attorney Sherman engaged a forensic genealogist, Von Langen, LLC, to verify the relationships of both nieces, and to identify any other heirs to Mr. Lacy’s estate who might be unaware of his death.
Although Von Langen received little cooperation from either of the nieces, his exhaustive research revealed that both were related to Mr. Lacy, and thus both were deserving heirs. But the research also discovered the “missing niece” had a deceased brother, whose surviving daughter also had a claim to the estate as a grandniece of the decedent.
The grandniece happened to mention that she had recently been in contact with her aunt, the late-arriving “missing niece.” The heir hunters and their attorney had failed to disclose the existence of the grandniece. In fact, steps were taken to discourage the grandniece from contacting Von Langen or the estate’s attorney.
It was now suspected that a conspiracy to defraud the grandniece and the estate was being perpetrated by the “missing niece” and the attorney who was working with International Missing Heir Finders, LLC. Indeed, the owner of International Missing Heir Finders showed up at the grandniece’s New York apartment and attempted to get her to “sign a contract” giving his company a portion of any share of the estate she realized.
Attorney Sherman described the situation as, “the perfect set-up to file another claim against my client after I redistributed all of the estate’s assets.”
The attorney for the “missing niece” was not through. Since his other client, International Missing Heir Finders, was unable to convince the grandniece to sign a contract assigning a portion of her inheritance, they offered to withdraw their motion to set aside the findings of the Court, but only if Attorney Sherman agreed to stop Von Langen from digging further into the genealogy for the estate. International Missing Heir Finders (IMHF) would take over the research “at no cost.”
Attorney Sherman was having none of that, stating, “I would never consider relying on any research performed by IMHF. Mark Evans’ [IMHF’s attorney] dual representation raises issues in this case.” She explained the mysterious turn of events to the judge, and IMHF withdrew their objection.
Von Langen was able to continue the research into the possibility that even more heirs to Mr. Lacy’s estate existed. None were located. However, in an effort to help reduce research costs, he suggested that, in spite of the demonstrated unwillingness of IMHF and its attorney to be forthcoming with information, an interview with IMHF, its attorney and their client might “shake loose” additional information about other relatives.
At the time of this writing the case is still open, pending a ruling on the amount of money the “missing niece” would receive from Mr. Lacy’s estate.
Concluded attorney Sherman, “It is amazing how things change when the truth finally surfaces. Absolutely amazing… This case belongs in the Guinness Book of World Records!”
Conservator’s Foresight Prevents Deceit by Heir Hunters
Having an estate settled and distributed fairly is the goal – indeed, the duty – of every estate administrator. So when attorney Paul Barnett was assigned as Conservator for Coletta L. Schulz, he immediately engaged the forensic genealogy firm of Von Langen, LLC to research and identify potential heirs in advance of the death of Ms. Schulz.
This was a particularly important step, as Ms. Schulz had no last will and testament, and attorney Barnett wanted to avoid being assailed by “heir hunters” filing claims on behalf of what may or may not turn out to be legitimate heirs. Experience had shown him that the “research” conducted by heir hunters left much to be desired.
Von Langen identified and provided current addresses for the statutory heirs, which included a sibling, half-blood siblings, and half-blood nieces and nephews. All heirs were confirmed and accounted for.
So it came as a surprise a year later when Attorney Barnett reopened the case with Von Langen. The new assignment was to review proofs of heirship submitted by attorney Thomas Callahan, who was working for an heir hunting company, Brandenburger & Davis. Following the death of Ms. Schulz and the filing of her estate, the heir hunters had swooped in and somehow managed to secure contracts with several of the heirs who had already been identified, even though they were already in line to receive their shares of the estate.
However, the plot thickens! It was discovered that, when compared with Von Langen’s prior findings, the proofs of heirship prepared by the heir hunters contained numerous omissions that were intentionally designed to mislead the administrator. Their deception was clearly perpetrated in an effort to effect a distribution to only those heirs who were under contract with the heir hunting company, thus boosting the percentage of the estate taken by the heir hunters.
The alert work of attorney Barnett and the detailed research by Von Langen prevented Ms. Schulz’s estate from being unfairly distributed.