What Happens To Property of Heirs or Legatees Who Cannot Be Found?

When an estate is ready to be closed, if one or more beneficiaries cannot be located, the court may appoint an agent (who is not a public official) to take possession of the missing person's property in trust.  RCW 11.76.200.  This agent shall provide bond.  RCW 11.76.210.  If the agent still holds the property after three years, the assets shall be deposited with the county treasurer.  RCW 11.76.220.  The funds shall remain with the county treasurer for four years and ninety days, after which time the funds are remitted to the Washington department of revenue in escheat.  RCW 11.76.220.  Heirs of the absentee person may bring proceedings to take the unclaimed funds four years after the funds are deposited with the county treasurer.  RCW 11.76.243.  The absentee may attempt to claim her property, even after it has been remitted to the department of revenue, by petition to the probate court.  RCW 11.76.245.

Another chapter, somewhat redundant (and possibly conflicting) insofar as it relates to a possible decedent's property, provides for appointment of a trustee for an absent person's property.  When a person owns property but cannot be found or is an armed services member or merchant marine sailor during wartime who is reported missing action or interned or captured (an “absentee” per RCW 11.80.010, .120), an interested person may petition the court for an order appointing a temporary trustee over the absentee’s property and instructing the petitioner about service of the notice, which shall include publication in newspapers, in counties where persons may know the whereabouts of the absentee, for three consecutive weeks.  RCW 11.80.010.  At hearing on this petition, the court may continue the hearing, if information emerges that may permit discovery of the absentee.  If it appears to the court that the absentee is unlikely to be found, the court shall appoint a trustee of the absentee’s property.  RCW 11.80.010.

The absentee’s trustee must appraise and inventory the trust property.  When the inventory and appraisal is filed with the court, the court will set the amount of the trustee’s bond in a sum at least equal to the value of the absentee’s property.  RCW 11.80.020.  The absentee’s trustee shall make annual reports to the court concerning the trust assets.  RCW 11.80.030.  The trustee shall administer the trust assets, and may expend them, upon court approval, to pay debts of the absentee.  The trustee shall be entitled to such compensation as the court approves.  RCW 11.80.040.  The trustee may, upon court approval, make distributions for the support of the absentee’s spouse, domestic partner, or dependent children.  RCW 11.80.050.  A trustee may resign and be replaced or be removed and replaced, upon which event the trustee shall account for the trust assets.  RCW 11.80.060.  The trusteeship shall continue until the absentee is found, the absentee appoints an attorney-in-fact to manage the trust property, the trust property is distributed to the absentee’s heirs or legatees, or the trust property escheats to the State of Washington.  RCW 11.80.070.

Five years after the absentee disappeared, the absentee’s heirs may petition the court for an order to provisionally distribute the trust assets to the heirs.  Such distribution may occur earlier than five years after the absentee’s disappearance if the court determines that there are strong reasons to believe that the absentee is dead.  If the absentee left a Will, that Will shall be presented to the court at the time of this hearing.  A  person in possession of absentee’s Will who fails to offer up the Will may be compelled to present the Will to the court.  RCW 11.80.080.  Persons who receive the absentee’s property as a result of such a hearing must provide bond in an amount twice the value of the property received (and ten times the amount of rents and profits from real property) to insure repayment of these provisional distributions should the absentee emerge.  RCW 11.80.090.  Those to whom property has been provisionally distributed may petition the court seven years after the absentee disappeared for final distribution of the trust assets and release (exoneration) of their previously-imposed bonds.  RCW 11.80.100.  If no heirs or legatees have petitioned the court for distribution after seven years, the trustee shall petition the court to deliver the absentee’s property to the State of Washington as escheat property.  RCW 11.80.110.

For small absentee estates, less than five thousand dollars, a summary procedure without full trusteeship, provides that a spouse or domestic partner, or kin if these do not exist, may petition the court for disposal of the absentee’s property.  RCW 11.80.130.

When probate administration requires the court to make a decision on behalf of persons who are minors, incompetent or disabled, as yet not born or unascertained (that is, cannot be determined until the occurrence of some future event), or whose address or identity is unknown, the personal representative may petition the court for appointment of a special representative, who must be a Washington lawyer, to defend that person or group's interests in the proceeding.  The statute specifies the form of the petition for a special representative.  RCW 11.96A.250.