What Should I Do As An Executor If I Have Missing Beneficiaries?

4 minutes reading time

Today, family units are more complex and diverse. It is not unheard of for individuals to have had multiple marriages, meaning modern, blended families are on the rise.

When families split, individuals from that family may move away or even lose contact with the deceased, which can become particularly problematic if they remain named in a Will because they can become difficult to locate.

Despite this, anyone named in a Will as a beneficiary will still be entitled to receive an inheritance no matter where they are; therefore, the executor must take reasonable steps to search for them.

Myerson's Wills, Trusts, and Probate lawyers discuss the duties of the executor and what steps to take to locate the beneficiaries of a Will.

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What Should I Do As An Executor If I Have Missing Beneficiaries

Duties of the executor 

Executors are appointed under the Will and are selected to perform the role, which comes with various legal responsibilities.

These include, but are not limited to:

  • Applying for the Grant of Probate
  • Paying any outstanding debts and relevant taxes
  • Distributing the estate to the beneficiaries

Distributing the estate to the beneficiaries 

As part of their role, the executor must ensure that they make reasonable efforts to trace all beneficiaries that are named in the Will.

If the executor proceeds to distribute the estate without taking any reasonable steps to locate the beneficiaries first, and the beneficiary does not receive a share that they are entitled to, the estate could be vulnerable to claims if they come forward later, and the executor could be personally liable to pay this share themselves.

Not only this, but by failing to reasonably trace, beneficiaries could potentially miss out on their rightful entitlement, which would ultimately go against the testator's wishes.  

It is, therefore, extremely important that the testator's wishes are followed, and the assets are distributed amongst all beneficiaries as intended to avoid long delays and the estate being left in limbo until the matter is resolved.

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Duties of the executor

What steps can I take to locate the beneficiaries of a will?

Missing beneficiaries are individuals who are entitled to receive their share of an estate but cannot be located.

If you are presented with a beneficiary who is unknown to you or someone whose location is unknown, you will need to try and trace them.

You should be aware that this duty can take a significant amount of time and effort and can slow down the administration of the estate, so you should carefully consider the different options that are available to you.

What steps can I take to locate the beneficiaries of a will

There are several ways to locate beneficiaries, and these can include:

- Speaking to family and friends

    • This is a great first step, as other people may be able to provide you with useful information or fill in any blanks you may have. Often, older generations may have a better understanding of the family history or may remember details that others will not.

- Conducting your own research

    • You could start by checking public/local area records, scouring the internet, or even searching social media pages. Due to the sheer amount of social media platforms available to us today, this could be a useful way of searching for someone and can provide more information about their location, family members and where they reside.

- Placing notices in the newspaper

    • Though this is not a legal requirement, this is an effective way to search for someone because even if the beneficiary no longer lives in the area, the notice may be seen by someone who knows them.
    • These notices are otherwise known as 'Section 27 notices', as Section 27 of the Trustee Act 1925 enables trustees and personal representatives to protect themselves from liability against any claims from beneficiaries that they were unaware of at the time they distribute the property in question, provided that the notice is set out in the correct way.
    • The notice gets placed in The London Gazette and a local newspaper relevant to the area of the deceased and sets out a period of at least two months for any interested person to inform the executor about their entitlement.

- Instructing a professional, such as a tracing agent or genealogist

    • A skilled tracing agent could possibly provide a quicker resolution to the matter as they would have better tools to conduct an investigation, including several different types of databases, which would otherwise be unavailable to yourself.
    • Again, using specialist databases, genealogists would be able to construct the family tree and relay information on to you, such as the missing beneficiaries' contact details.

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How do I protect myself?

Despite strong efforts to trace a missing beneficiary, on some occasions, it may still not be possible to locate them.

If you cannot find a beneficiary, along with obtaining legal advice, there are different options available to you to ensure that you are protected, such as:

  • Obtaining missing beneficiary insurance
    • Once you have obtained specialist insurance, if a missing beneficiary comes forward later, the insurance will pay for their entitlement subject to the terms of the insurance policy. Any costs associated with the premium would be paid for by the estate.
  • Obtaining indemnities
    • It is possible to obtain an indemnity so that if a missing beneficiary comes forward, the other beneficiaries would have to pay their share to them. Although this is a useful protection, it is not the most effective as there can be problems if they spend their inheritance, and the executor would be responsible to pay their entitlement.
  • Creating a reserve fund
    • Setting money aside in the event that a missing beneficiary comes forward can be effective for smaller estates. However, you will need to be aware that in doing this, the executor would need to create a separate account for 12 years, meaning your responsibilities would, therefore, continue.
  • Applying for a Benjamin Order
    • This involves applying to the court for permission to distribute the estate in a certain way or even on the basis that the missing beneficiary is no longer alive. Not only is this the more formal route, but it is also the costliest. If the missing beneficiary is later found, they will be able to recover their entitlement from the other beneficiaries who have received the estate; however, the executor will be protected.

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How do I protect myself

Contact Our Wills, Trusts, and Probate Team

If you are dealing with an estate that may potentially have missing or unknown beneficiaries, you should always make efforts to try and trace them, and if this fails, you should take measures to protect yourself.

At Myerson, we have a specialist Wills, Trusts and Probate Team who can advise and assist you with carrying out your duties as an executor.