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Wealthy man leaves $40 million inheritance to ... no one?

Under Minnesota law, when a person dies without a will, the person's estate passes to relatives according to what are known as the laws of intestate succession. Every state has a similar law, and they are all designed to distribute estate to family members, starting with the closest relatives and then, if close relatives are deceased, to relatives who are farther removed on the family tree. But what if a person dies without a will and without any living relatives?

That's a scenario that's apparently playing out in New York with the estate of a wealthy real estate developer and Holocaust survivor. The man died in January 2012 at the age of 97 and lawyers and state officials are still trying to figure out to do with his estate, which is worth about $40 million.

Born in Poland, the man fled to Russia during World War II. He later met a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp and they married and moved to America. However, they never had children and eventually divorced. She died in 1992. While the man had many friends, state officials say they can find no trace of any surviving family. They may have all died during the war.

Friends said the man's real estate business built hundreds of homes over the years and he had numerous investments. His longtime accountant said he pressed the man for years to write a will, and the man said he would write one just two weeks before he died. As yet, no will has been found. A state administrator has auctioned off the man's house and much of his other assets. If officials can't find any family members, the man's fortune will go to the state's Department of Revenue.

When a wealthy person dies without a will, or with a will that is in dispute, it often brings out all kinds of people claiming to be long-lost family members, hoping to get a piece of the inheritance. These situations often lead to litigation.

It's important for Minnesota residents to leave a valid will so as to avoid these conflicts. When they don't, it's important for their heirs and beneficiaries to understand their rights.

Source: New York Times, "He Left a Fortune, to No One," Julie Satow, April 27, 2013

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