Death Without Heirs

May 6th, 2013

A person does not have any heirs until he or she is dead. This simple point proves quite elusive to my property students. If a person dies without any relatives or kin, the person truly dies without heirs. In such a case, any property left by the decedent reverts, or “escheats” to the state. I often tell my students that in reality, nearly everyone has some heir.

Yet, the Times recently profiled Roman Blum, who died intestate at the age of 97 in (of all places) Staten Island without an heir in the world.

Mr. Blum, a Holocaust survivor and real estate developer, left behind no heirs and no surviving family members — his former wife died in 1992 and the couple was childless. His funeral, held graveside at the New Montefiore Jewish Cemetery in West Babylon, N.Y., was attended by a small number of mourners, most of them elderly fellow survivors or children of survivors. . .  .

But perhaps the greatest mystery surrounding Mr. Blum is why a successful developer, who built hundreds of houses around Staten Island and left behind an estate valued at almost $40 million, would die without a will.

That is no small matter, as his is the largest unclaimed estate in New York State history, according to the state comptroller’s office.

“He was a very smart man but he died like an idiot,” said Paul Skurka, a fellow Holocaust survivor who befriended Mr. Blum after doing carpentry work for him in the 1970s.

This is why everyone should write a will! Indeed, if no heirs are ascertained, all of the property escheats.

Gary D. Gotlin, the public administrator handling the case, sold Mr. Blum’s home on Staten Island, auctioned off his jewelry and his furniture and is putting other properties that he owned on the market. Mr. Gotlin’s office, which is overseen by Surrogate’s Court in Richmond County, is also using Mr. Blum’s estate to pay his taxes, conduct an in-depth search for a will and hire a genealogist to search for relatives. If none are identified, the money will pass into the state’s coffers. That, Mr. Blum’s friends said, would be a tragedy, compounding the one that befell him as a young man in Eastern Europe.

Once Mr. Gotlin completes liquidating the assets, and if investigators fail to find a will or surviving kin, whatever money is remaining from Mr. Blum’s estate will be passed to the city’s Department of Finance. If, after three years, no one comes forward, the money would go to the state comptroller’s office of unclaimed funds, which has $12 billion in its accounts dating to 1943. That office keeps a portion of the estate and transfers a portion to the state’s general fund. If an heir comes forward, the entire amount is returned.

Why didn’t he write a will?

None of Mr. Blum’s friends know why he never wrote a will. Those close to him say it may have been superstition or, after coming so close to dying during the war, a refusal to contemplate his own mortality. He may also have been unwilling to share the full details of his estate with a lawyer, the desire for secrecy a holdover from his experiences during the war.

Had the Blums had children, the estate would have gone to them, even without a will. While Mrs. Blum, as his former wife, would not have been eligible — only a current spouse or a blood relative can claim an inheritance in the absence of a will — his friends hope that Mr. Blum had siblings back in Poland with whom he was not in contact or that, if he had had a child before the war, some distant relations are still living in Europe.

“It wouldn’t be that uncommon to uncover collateral heirs,” said Burt Neuborne, the civil liberties defender who was the lead counsel in recent Holocaust litigation against Swiss banks. “We often found that someone, like a third cousin twice removed, would come forward.”

Yet despite a worldwide search that included Poland and Israel, Mr. Gotlin said, “to date, there is no evidence of any living relatives.”

Oddly enough, he made his money buying land in Staten Island, including in the neighborhood of Eltingville, where I grew up!

Then, in 1964, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge opened, linking Brooklyn and Staten Island, and many in the group, including Mr. Blum, began buying land on Staten Island. Prices were low, and Mr. Blum began developing land and building homes in neighborhoods like Eltingville, Huguenot and Manor Heights.

But in a tragic twist, the husband wanted to move to Staten Island. The wife wanted to stay in Queens. The husband left, and soon the couple were divorced. This was a bridge too far for them to cross.