What happens when people die and there is no known family or other party willing and able to handle their affairs? Who will try to locate family? Who will try to determine if a will exists? Who will make the burial or cremation arrangements? Who will pay their bills, close their accounts, and distribute any assets?
When people in San Luis Obispo County die with no personal representative appointed to administer their estates or affairs, the County Public Administrator is legally mandated to step in and distribute the assets of the estate.
Many such cases involve people with very few assets. However, 2016 set an all-time record with three active cases where the estates were over $1 million.
In one such case, the County was unable to locate an heir, despite extensive efforts. Rather than transfer the money to the State, the County decided to hire a professional firm to locate an heir. The efforts were ultimately successful and, needless to say, the heir was extremely surprised.
In a typical year, the Public Administrator conducts about 15 to 20 formal investigations, and accepts five to 10 new cases for administration.
In 2016, however, the Public Administrator was unusually busy with a record-breaking 30 investigations. In 21 of these cases, either another family member was located who was willing and able to administer the estate, or there were not enough assets to administer. The County took on the other nine cases.
“While the term ‘Public Administrator’ may seem generic, the duties of this office are quite extraordinary,” said County Auditor-Controller Division Manager Gordon Eiland. “The Public Administrator only gets involved as a last measure when there is no one else with higher authority to act.”
When someone passes away and the County Coroner is unable to locate family, the Public Administrator will be called in to investigate the residence and launch an extensive search for documents and clues about the family and the person’s final wishes.
During this investigation, the Public Administrator attempts to reconstruct the person’s life. This process can often be heartbreaking for County staff, as the lens into another’s life often reveals the loneliness and depression experienced in the deceased’s final days.
The Public Administrator will scour the entire residence for clues, which may come from address books, checkbooks, mail, personal computers, or even scraps of paper with handwritten notes. Every room, every drawer, and every nook and cranny will be searched. Key documents, like wills, have even been found stuffed in books.
“The site work can be quite dirty and not for the squeamish, as often residences are in disarray, and while the coroner may have removed the body, the odors and other evidence of death can remain,” Eiland said.
If family can be located and is willing and able to act, or a last will and testament is found, the Public Administrator will often refer the case to the family or others as named in the will.
If not, then the County is responsible for acting on behalf of the person to handle final affairs, including locating and liquidating assets, paying bills, arranging for cremation or burial, and distributing the remainder of the estate to any heirs.