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Executors – what to do if you can’t find a beneficiary

Being the executor of an estate under a Will can be complicated and demanding at the best of times - but particularly so when you can't track down one of the beneficiaries.

In this scenario, it is important to take specialist legal advice to ensure that you as executor do not become personally liable to pay the missing beneficiary's share if they turn up later, after you have distributed the estate.

Agreeing to act as an executor, means the law imposes on you certain responsibilities and duties. Key to this is making sure that all the estate's funds are distributed to the right people.

Reasonable efforts to trace missing beneficiaries

If you can't find one of the beneficiaries named in the Will, there are some key steps to follow which show you have made all reasonable efforts to search for them:

  • Making inquiries with the deceased's friends and relatives to see if they can help;
  • Placing an advert in a newspaper, known as an S27 notice, close to where the missing person once lived giving any creditors two months in which to make a claim. This can also have the effect of alerting beneficiaries you haven't been able to locate;
  • Considering instructing a genealogy company to construct a detailed family tree and using this to extend the search;
  • Contacting a tracing agent to help investigate where the beneficiary might now be.

Protecting yourself if you can't find the beneficiary

Before you distribute the estate, you need to make sure you have done everything possible to protect yourself against any possible claims in the future.

This is because if a beneficiary owed money from the estate is not paid, you may be liable to pay them from your own funds if they suddenly appear later.

If you proceed to administer the estate, ways to safeguard your position include:

  • Distributing the funds to the known beneficiaries but obtaining indemnities from them confirming they will pay the missing beneficiary if he or she comes forward later. This is obviously not risk-free because they may have spent up by this point;
  • Taking out an insurance policy which will pay out if the missing beneficiary is traced;
  • Keeping a reserve fund equal to the amount the missing beneficiary would have received so you can pay them if they turn up within the 12-year limitation period. This can be a practical solution for smaller estates;
  • Paying the legacy into court, although this has limitations which you'll need to discuss with a specialist lawyer.

For more help and advice, please contact Wards Solicitors' Wills, Probate and Mental Capacity team.

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