What if My Stepfather Died Without a Will & His Children Are Nowhere to Be Found?

By Maggie Lourdes

Intestate succession refers to how people's estates are distributed if they die without wills. Each state has its own intestate succession laws. When stepparents die intestate and are survived by adopted or biological children, intestate statutes determine property distribution. Eventually, if the children cannot be located and no other legal heirs exist, state escheat statutes control what happens to the inheritance.

Children and Intestate Succession

Generally, if a stepparent survives his spouse, the surviving spouse shares in an intestate estate with the decedent's children. If there is no surviving spouse, the children typically take the entire intestate estate. For example, in Michigan, a surviving spouse who inherited in 2011 received the first $136,000 of an intestate estate and split the remainder with the decedent's children if they were all born to another person. The split is adjusted annually in Michigan for statutorily defined cost of living adjustments. Specific distribution plans for intestate succession vary from state to state.

Notifying Heirs

The personal representative of an intestate estate is obligated to notify the children of a decedent when a probate estate is opened. If the children's whereabouts are initially unknown, the personal representative must take reasonable steps to locate them. For example, a personal representative should do such things as contact other family members, conduct postal searches and search social networking websites. If good faith attempts cannot locate a decedent's children, the personal representative should inform the court.

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Notice by Publication

Typically, state law requires that a personal representative publish death notifications in the county's legal newspaper where the probate estate is open. The name of the decedent, the court case number, the court address and basic information for filing a claim against the estate are generally required. The estate must not distribute any assets until the publication runs for a time set by state law. If no children come forward after the publication is complete, their shares of inheritance may pass to the next-of-kin.

Escheat Laws

A missing child's inheritance may be transferred to the state treasury if no other legal heirs can be found. Intestate succession laws define the next line of distribution if no children are available to inherit. Before a personal representative passes over a child, he should be certain he is carefully following all of the state's probate statutes and court rules. If diligent searches and publications do not uncover a child's whereabouts, and no other legal heirs exist, a decedent's assets are generally held in escrow for a time set by law. After that time expires, the property is sent to the state treasury. This process is known as escheat.

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The Inheritance Hierarchy Without a Will in New York State


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