Sally Rosenthal passed away on February 16, 2015. She was unmarried, had no children and died intestate as she had never executed a will.

In order to locate decedent’s potential heirs, the temporary administrators of the decedent’s estate hired an expert to conduct a genealogical search for the decedent’s family members. Although the expert attempted for three years to locate descendants of parents and grandparents, the expert could locate only more distant relatives, namely second cousins and second cousins once removed. The temporary administrators then filed a Complaint proposing that the Court compel the distribution of decedent’s estate assets to those second cousins and second cousins once removed identified by the genealogical expert as the only living family members and intestate heirs of the decedent’s estate.

The State of New Jersey filed opposition to the application filed by the temporary administrators alleging that the individuals identified in the administrator’s search were not “heirs” of the decedent as defined by the appropriate statutes. As a result, the State claimed that the decedent’s estate assets should be delivered to the Unclaimed Property Administrator.

The presiding judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Probate Part, in Bergen County considered the administrator’s application and the State’s opposition. The Court began the analysis by focusing on the definition of the term “heirs” in N.J.S.A. 3B:1-1, as follows:

The term “heirs” is defined as those persons, including, but not limited to, the surviving spouse, the domestic partner and the descendants of the decedent, who are entitled under the statutes of intestate succession to the property of a decedent. (Emphasis Added)

The statute of intestate succession applicable here as identified by the Court is N.J.S.A. 3B:5-4 which provides that, when there is no surviving spouse or domestic partner, the only potential intestate heirs are surviving descendants, parents or descendants of a parent, or grandparents or descendants of a grandparent. In other words, intestate distribution of the decedent’s assets does not go beyond descendants of grandparents.

With that background, the Court held as follows:

The individuals whom the administrators ask this Court to distribute the estate assets to are direct descendants of great-grandparents, as opposed to grandparents. The identified individuals are therefore not within the required degree of consanguinity that would entitle them to a share of the estate under New Jersey’s intestacy laws. Instead, the assets should escheat to the State and be administered in accordance with the New Jersey Unclaimed Property Act, N.J.S.A. 46:30B-1 to 109 because there are effectively no known heirs to the decedent’s estate.

Accordingly, the Court denied the distribution sought by the administrators and instead directed them to deliver the assets of decedent’s estate to New Jersey’s Unclaimed Property Administrator.

The case is attached here – IMO Estate of Sally Rosenthal

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