A recurring plot in books, film or television is the story of the childless bachelor billionaire who dies and his vast wealth is inherited by a distant relative who probably had no idea he or she was related to the billionaire in the first place. Adam Sandler plays a pizzeria owner who inherits his great-uncle's large estate in "Mr. Deeds". John Goodman plays a Las Vegas lounge singer that inherits the English throne after the entire royal family is accidentally killed in "King Ralph". These are all entertaining stories of accidental heirs who find themselves in a fish-out-of-water situation with their new wealth, but does it happen in real life?
It should be noted that most of these accidental inheritances occur when the decedent has no viable estate planning. Michigan's intestate laws limit the right to inherit to those who are a spouse or blood relatives of the deceased. However, a last will and testament or a trust can be drafted by the decedent to leave property to anyone he or she desires. The testator or grantor is not limited to selecting family members and could very well leave the entire estate to the mailman if the testator or grantor was of sound mind and not unduly influenced to do so.
In the absence of a will or trust, Michigan's intestate succession laws determines who inherits. MCL 700.2102 specifies that the estate is shared between the surviving spouse and the decedent's descendants. MCL 700.2103 further elaborates that, in the absence of a surviving spouse, the proceeds of the estate are distributed as follows:
- The decedent's descendants by representation.
- If no surviving descendants, the decedent's parents or the survivor of them.
- If no surviving parent, then the decedents of the parents or either of them by representation.
- If no surviving descendant of the decedent's parents, then ½ passes to the paternal grandparents (or their descendants by right of representation) and ½ passes to the maternal grandparents (or their descendants by right of representation).
If there are no takers under the criteria above, then the intestate estate passes to the State of Michigan. Unlike the movies, a distant fifth cousin will not be able to inherit from you. The furthest that the law will reach is to the descendants of the decedent's grandparents. Any distant relatives beyond that point are excluded and the estate passes to the state government.
If there are no relatives of the deceased, then who administers the estate? The law provides for the office of the state public administrator, who is an assistant attorney general appointed by the governor upon the recommendation of the attorney general. The state public administrator appoints county public administrators throughout the state to assist in his or her duties of administering those estates that do not appear to have heirs or do not have other suitable persons to administer them. MCL 700.3203(1)(g) provides "[a]fter 63 days after the decedent's death, or if the court determines exigent circumstances exist, the state or county public administrator [may act] if ANY of the following apply:"
- (i) No interested person applied or petitioned for appointment of a personal representative within 63 days or the number of days determined by the court under this subdivision after the decedent's death.
- (ii) The decedent died apparently leaving no known heirs.
MCL 700.3204(2) further states "[t]he state or county public administrator must be appointed only in a formal proceeding. Before appointing the state or county public administrator or any other person without priority, the court shall determine that persons having priority have been notified of the proceedings and have failed to request appointment or to nominate another person for appointment, and that administration is necessary."
If there are no apparent heirs, then it is the duty of the state or county public administrator to turn over the assets of the estate to the State of Michigan. The public administrator is not paid any salary or emoluments from holding office, but is entitled to draw fiduciary fees from the estate as other personal representatives would be.
For most people, it is unimaginable that their final wishes include the estate being turned over to the government. To avoid this undesirable result, it is advisable that everyone formulate some type of estate planning (at the very minimum, a last will and testament to direct assets to be inherited by loved ones that are not necessarily family members). A knowledgeable lawyer in the area of probate and estate planning can help guide you to ensure that your intentions for the people and property in your life are carried out.
If you have questions regarding any aspect of estate planning or probate, do not hesitate to contact the experienced attorneys at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC.