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Genealogy: the business of finishing the unfinished

When the average person thinks of probate law they are not likely to associate it with fierce battles, murderous avarice, heroic grace or the dramatic turn of fortune. Take the word intestate for example. It may appear exacting and emotionless to the lay person, as do so many legal terms. To pass without having made out a will, however, speaks to the very unforeseeable nature of death.

After all, how many morning to-do lists contain an item such as "Prepare for the day I will shake off this earthly coil"? Most of us prefer to think that making ourselves ready for death is something that can be put off at least until tomorrow. As a result, many Americans are set to die without having drafted a will, according to a survey conducted by RocketLawyer.com. This is not just an issue among younger people, as 41% of baby boomers with children do not have a will. And among the top reasons cited? That one isn't needed yet.

When the unexpected does occur, family and loved ones are often left holding the bag and the onus for "speaking" for the deceased. Then the wishes of the departed are meted out by negotiating the claims of heirs and potential heirs with laws of succession, which vary from state to state and country to country. Many probate cases span multiple states with dual home and property ownership interests, and continents, making reliable and knowledgeable genealogical firms all the more instrumental in this process.

Yet, even when one has made all the possible preparations, nothing is for certain. Sometimes beneficiaries are difficult to find. When a homeless man died recently at a bus stop in Jersey City this March, there were no known family members to contact. For an individual such as Ramesh Patel, his death is likely the first instance in which a Google search would have yielded any results. And while a homeless advocate group undertook the task of finding his family, such a task is daunting for an organization that lacks experience in the business of finding people, the means to contact them, and the knowledge to legally prove their relationship and entitlement.

But imagine for a second that Patel, unbeknownst to anyone, had had a small fortune. Then the job of tracking down relatives might be taken up by genealogy professionals. A firm with international connections would likely be needed to trace the branches of his family tree in order to identify and locate relatives who may not have even known of his existence, and inform them they stand to inherit a portion of his estate.

This type of situation has so captured the popular imagination that it is often repeated in third person anecdotes at cocktail parties and next to office water coolers. The "rich estranged uncle story" has nearly gained the status of an urban myth, something you often hear about but doubt actually happens. In reality, versions of this story occur regularly. And it often falls to genealogical professionals to connect unknowing heirs to theirs to their bequests, every so often changing the course of lives.

But beneficiaries do not have to be missing to require the assistance of a team of professionals to untangle a complex situation. Even when heirs are identified and their locations known, circumstances may have changed. Sometimes the very circumstances surrounding the decedent's death could preclude the heir from collecting.

This is exactly what happened in the case of the Will of Ben Novack Jr. When Novack died in 2009, he was survived by his wife, Narcy Novack. According to the Will, she was entitled to the majority of the estate, which at the time was estimated at $10 million. A fairly straightforward matter to probate you say? She was definitely easy to find after her husband's death. But this was exactly the problem. After being found to have had complicity in her husband's murder, Mrs. Novack's new residence was a federal prison cell.

Although the idea of a self-made widow benefiting from a murder she planned is a universally ugly one, real decisions concerning probate fall to real courts and not that of public opinion. Florida has a law on the books, nicknamed the Slayer Statute, which does not allow somebody who is responsible for a death to benefit from it. But, as Narcy Novack was convicted of having planned her husband's murder but not of the murder itself, she might have tried to press her claim. What's more, it was conceivable that if her children received part of the inheritance, Narcy Novack might have benefited indirectly.

This is the part of the story where Harvey Morse, an international genealogical expert, stepped in. Morse managed to find relatives of Ben Novack Jr., including an adopted brother who had been homeless, with potentially legitimate claims to the estate. They then set out to prevent Narcy Novack's daughter and grandchildren from collecting a share of the estate, which could very conceivably have found its way into Mrs. Novack's legal defense fund.

Of course, most cases are not as widely followed or sensational as that of the Novacks. Some pass more quietly, but are no less important. Morse Genealogical Services, a family firm of long standing, over 75 years of doing this work, whose current president, Ari Morse who is Harvey's nephew, has handled cases in which many heirs were found. Instead of a tug of war over property in the wake of death, they meet as a group, including family members who stand to receive nothing, to work out the details. In cases like this, it is not unheard of that family members are more concerned with how remains are handled than with money or property.

The details of how affairs are handled after a death are as varied and unpredictable as any human drama. But what all these cases have in common is the fact that they need capable and trustworthy individuals and organizations to realize the last wishes of the decedent, comply with the law, and in effect realize a sense of justice. These are things we all would hope to be achieved after our passing. It's a business that is sometimes messy, sometimes dignified, but rarely easy. Luckily, there are professionals who make it their business to bring closure to those matters always left open and uncertain by the unfortunately inevitable event of death.

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