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Collecting on an Estate: A Case Study in Fighting Bureaucracy

By Penny Spencer, January 11, 2000

If you have ever had a relative pass away, you might be familiar with the legal bureaucracy that goes on in collecting from an estate. Recently, Penny's family went through a nightmare trying to collect on the estates of two relatives.

This last May 1999, I was contacted by a 2nd cousin in Springfield, Illinois who was appointed administrator of an estate that concerned a Great Aunt we both shared in Pennsylvania who had died July 2, 1972 when all of our parents were alive. The original will was distributed among all the living heirs.

In 1997 the Mellon Bank in Ligonier, Pennsylvania did an audit and found that not all monies had been distributed out of the will concerning this Great Aunt. The original attorney's son who now owned the firm contacted my 2nd cousin. His father was deceased and had been the attorney who had executed the original will.

My cousin received a letter dated December 1997 explaining that he needed to furnish a list of the known heirs, their addresses and other pertinent information. My cousin did as requested through some long hours of hard work and investigation. He called the attorney at his own expense, wrote and faxed letters and documented all his correspondence.

In May of 1999, he began a letter writing campaign to all of the known heirs enlisting their help, as the attorney would not return phone calls or acknowledge any correspondence. He was told repeatedly by the secretary that the attorney was on the phone, he was in court, he was out of the office, he was on vacation, or he would call later in the day as he was with a client. He sent copies of all the documentation to each representative of the family that would be involved and we were enlisted to write a letter to the attorney. The attorney resides in Ligonier, PA and did not acknowledge approximately 18 letters from all representatives of the families involved. I happened to represent my brother and myself. Thank God for e-mail as we all used it regularly.

During the summer of 1999, we began a vigorous letter writing campaign to the State of Pennsylvania voicing our concern and unhappiness with this attorney. We were promptly (within one week) advised that the matter had been investigated and we were to leave this attorney alone or each and everyone one of us faced prosecution by the State of Pennsylvania and we were not to discuss it among ourselves.

I was given the task of researching, and obtaining a birth and death certificate of my mother's oldest brother who didn't have any heirs in California. I promptly got on my trusty computer, dialed up vitalrec.com and found San Diego County the place I needed. Not ever having done this before and only having a year of death of my Uncle I needed advice and I e-mailed the County Office in San Diego and inquired what was the best method of obtaining a death certificate.

I had an answer the following morning:

1. I could mail to the State of California in Sacramento all pertinent information, send the proper amount of money and wait for a death certificate, or

2. I could send a check and the same amount of information to San Diego and they would try to help me under the circumstances.

I had the death certificate within a week from San Diego County and 4 months before the State of California mailed me a death certificate. I also needed verification from Riddlesburg, Bedford County, Pennsylvania that this Uncle had been born. In the meantime, I also had to find my own mother's birth and death certificate, her marriage license, a copy of her will, my birth certificate, and my marriage license.

I will say at this point that I had a miserable time with Bedford County, and we all were having to deal with them as this is where the family origins started. My first letter from them stated that neither my Uncle nor Mother existed. I could not find my mother's birth certificate as I had misplaced it. I finally contacted a superb professional genealogist who was recommended to me and she found my mother's birth certificate and I received it the day I found the original.

Now, to my uncle, evidently his birth was not recorded, but the census shows his birth and armed with that piece of paper and his application for a Social Security card and his death certificate I asked for a delayed birth certificate from Pennsylvania. I was first directed by the Congressman representing Bedford County that he needed all this documentation and when I finally had mailed all of this to his office I was contacted by e-mail from one of his assistants that they were unable to fill my request.

Meanwhile, all my cousins had to supply all the same kind of information on their families. The law in Pennsylvania reads that if money is left to a blood relative, if the surviving spouse is alive the share will be allotted to the spouse without inheritance or state tax withheld. The law in the State of California is just the opposite, if the blood relative is deceased, and the surviving spouse is alive, the money then goes to the blood children, which in our case would be great nieces and nephews. This applied to the deceased Uncle in San Diego. The law of California also states that his share would only be allotted to those who provided their address and Social Security number and his share would be divided only to those who supplied this information. I called and in my case, my mother had disinherited my brother and the law of California would not recognize her will as legal and he would receive a share against her wishes. The surviving spouse of one Uncle would not receive a share but her 12 children would each receive 1/12th of their father's share. Also, the State of California deducts inheritance and California State taxes.

All of the information was sent registered mail to the 2nd cousin in Springfield, Illinois and to the lawyer in Ligonier, Pennsylvania. The lawyer sat with the information completed by July and refused to take any action. Finally in August, a 2nd cousin in South Carolina who is a CEO of a large corporation had his company law firm put pressure on the lawyer in Pennsylvania as they also had copies of all requested documents. I received a letter from the lawyer in Pennsylvania in October and he informed me he had sent me a letter in 1998, and several of my cousins also received the same fictitious letter.

Well, it came down to finally we were informed in November the money would be disbursed December 7, 1999 and January 7th, 2000 was when we all received our money from Pennsylvania. We still have yet to receive anything from California.

During all of this I wrote to Steve Johnson because when I received my Uncle's death certificate from San Diego I wanted to know if he had knowledge concerning certain things on the death certificate that I didn't know. First it was said he was cremated at the request of the Telophase Society. I contacted a local mortuary in my hometown and they informed me that my Uncle had to be homeless, or indigent, (poor) without funds, for the Telophase Society to assist in cremating his body for no charge. The more I thought about this the more angry I became. My Uncle had lived in the same mobile home park since I was a little girl, so I am saying he lived in the same place for approximately 45 years. My Uncle was a commercial fisherman on a tuna boat that was gone for weeks at a time. I have a paper that my Aunt had received his pension from the Fisherman's Union and had distributed it among his brothers and sisters.

I wrote to the Public Administrator of San Diego and presented the facts that:

1. He was not indigent,
2. Addresses were available in his home,
3. His neighbors knew him after living there most of his life,
4. Why wasn't someone in the family contacted?
5. Where were his ashes?
6. What had happened to his personal belongings and his estate?

This is the answer I received:

You wrote 15 years to late, we only keep records for 15 years. It is not the State of California's responsibility to contact the next of kin, check with his neighbors for addresses, nor his house. Therefore since he had had a stroke and was not able to communicate before he died he was assumed indigent. He was cremated, his ashes thrown at sea, his personal belongings and estate auctioned and the State of California assumed ownership of all his assets, minus the Fisherman's Pension that my Aunt happened to find before the State of California did.

I checked with our local county seat and asked if the above situation occurred in Oregon would the same action take place? I was told certainly not, if he had a driver's license, someone would be sent to the residence, if no one was home the neighbor or manager of the mobile home park would be contacted. The mobile home would be searched for addresses of friends or relatives and an effort would be made to contact someone. Also, I was informed even if the above did occur it was against the law not to keep copies for only 15 years, in Oregon they are kept at a minimum on microfiche for at least 25 years if not longer.

I guess my reaction to this, stay in touch with your family even if you don't like them, keep copies of all your birth, death and marriage licenses and have duplicates made and given to a loved one in case of the above.

I have learned a lot from this episode, and I fully think that the family was taken advantage of by the attorney in Pennsylvania and the State of Pennsylvania knew this guy had not done his job. My own daughter is an assistant district attorney in Oregon and she said that this stuff wouldn't fly here as he would of been called before the State Bar and probably would of been on probabtion for fraud. Also, the State of California and their 15 year limit was just about the last straw for me to swallow. My brother had visited this Uncle 3 years before he died and told me recently when I relayed this story to him that my Uncle was driving an almost new car, so there is more money the state got. He was single and had been for 20 years and had lots of money and I believe in my own heart they got to his bank account and did not notify any relatives until after they had attached all his assets and didn't realize the Fisherman's Union account and it took my Aunt 2 years to acquire that from California. Pretty fishy, pardon the pun!

- Penny Spencer [PENERRSP@aol.com]

Penny is a mother of two, a grandmother of three, and is employed as an office manager of a CPA firm. She had an early talent for fishing, reeling in a 25 pound salmon while in the 2nd grade.

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