Current Trends - Largest Unclaimed Estate (To Date) - Episode 70
Hey there, Legal Tea Listeners –This is your host, Jenny Rozelle. Welcome back for another episode of Legal Tea! Today’s topic is a current trend … something going on in the current time, that is pertinent to my little estate and elder law world. This week’s episode is going to be about a guy, who lived in Chicago, Illinois, who passed away in 2016. Well, his estate has ended up catching some headlines, even like super recently which is how I found out about this whole thing, because even though he passed away in 2016, it’s been quite the saga, to say the least …. Mainly because his estate is worth multiple millions of dollars (specifically, like $11 Million Dollars!) and he did not have an estate plan at all. And guess what? All of his immediate family had already passed away, so now what, right?! Well, needless to say, his estate turned into a big ol’ puzzle to figure out who were the rightful heirs of his estate. And actually, according to an article in People Magazine by Charmaine Patterson, this marks the largest unclaimed estate in the country!
Let’s first talk about who “he” is – his name is Joseph Stancak and he resided, prior to his passing, in Chicago, Illinois in the Gage Park neighborhood, if you know where that is. According to a CBS News Chicago piece, some of his neighbors spoke out and said that Joseph was a “quiet man who did not spend a ton of money and even repaired his home himself.” On December 23, 2016, Joseph passed away at the age of 87 years old and he did so … quietly. According to the People Magazine article by Patterson, Joseph never had any children and while he had seven siblings, all seven siblings had died before him. Crazy enough, like all this is not already crazy, all seven of his siblings did not have children either! So, it was … just him … and him only.
What we do know about Joseph’s family is that, according to the People Magazine by Patterson, most of his family live abroad specifically in Poland and Slovakia. After some intense research, his parents were born in Poland; hence the affiliation to central Europe. At some point in their family history, a family member or members moved to the United States because, a little flash forward to talking about who is getting Joseph’s Estate, family members were located in Chicago, of course that’s where Joseph resided, but also in New Jersey, New York and Minnesota. New Jersey makes sense, though, because I read somewhere that his parents, while they were from Europe, they got married in New Jersey. So, a little bit all over the place, geographically-speaking!
After Joseph died, the State Treasurer’s Office in Illinois had to get involved because no one claimed his assets, his investments, etc. and companies and places began turning them over to the State of Illinois to deal with since it had been years after Joseph’s passing. He passed away, remember, in 2016, and thing started to get turned over to the State of Illinois in 2019. That’s because his property turned into what is called unclaimed property – and hey, we did a Legal Tea episode on unclaimed property many episodes ago – so what that means is that Joseph’s financial institutions and banks noticed there had been no activity on his assets for several years – according to the State Treasurer’s announcement about Joseph’s Estate, they shared, “Unclaimed property includes forgotten bank accounts, unpaid life insurance benefits, the contents of safe deposit boxes, and other items. Returning unclaimed property is a core function of the Illinois State Treasurer’s Office, no matter how long it takes.”
So, that’s exactly what happened. His assets got turned over to the State Treasurer’s Office and it became their problem to find Jospeh’s nearest blood relatives to receive his Estate. Interestingly, very little is even known about HOW Joseph acquired his $11 Million Dollars in wealth. One quirky thing we know about Joseph is he did have a boat that he had named “Easy.” So maybe he acquired his wealth…easily or something. Ha! Once the Treasurer’s Office caught wind of Joseph’s passing, which was about 3 years after he actually had passed because that’s when the assets started funneling over to unclaimed property, an attorney at Piercey & Associates in Barrington, Illinois named Kenneth Piercey got involved.
Kenneth is well-known in the community for doing high-dollar estate planning, so this sort of case probably didn’t phase him. Anyway, the firm started working with the Treasurer’s Office to make the claim on behalf of Joseph’s Estate, as Kenneth was appointed as the Estate’s administrator. Kenneth shared, “It is a great privilege to be able to assist the heirs in collecting their rightful inheritance.” As I was doing my research for this episode, I Google’d Kenneth just to check him out – on his website under his bio, it confirms what I’ve shared about Kenneth. Just to name a few – he has “served as Trustee for Trusts with assets in excess of $10 Million Dollars; [he is] frequently retained to prove heirship, remove funds from the County Treasurer and distribute the funds to their rightful owners; and has represented a corporate client with assets in excess of $1 Trillion Dollars.” Yes, that was Trillion with a T. So, it seems like he’ll do juuuuust fine as Administrator of Joseph’s Estate.
So, now that we’re to this point … we have this guy (Joseph), who passed away a few years back, his assets got turned over to the State’s unclaimed property fund, and an attorney has been appointed as his Estate’s Administrator (think, Executor). Even though this whole story is crazy, it gets more crazy, because like I said at the beginning, Joseph died without an estate plan. No Will. No Trust. So, his Estate goes by Illinois’ intestacy laws, which are the laws that govern when someone passes away without an estate plan. They’re sort of like a default estate plan (after all, way too many people pass away without an estate plan – so it makes sense why these laws are so needed). I’m sure Illinois is similar-ish to Indiana’s intestacy laws that say who gets “first dibs” is family – so there’s a pecking order on who-gets-what. Though, like I mentioned earlier in the episode, Joseph was not married and had no children AND all of his siblings had passed away … and they didn’t have any kids either. (Like, what are the odds of that?!)
So, as an article in Block Club Chicago shared, Kenneth, the attorney/administrator and investigators had to pull together a family tree for Joseph. What a project! The Block Club Chicago article said it took years to pull together records to build the family tree – and Kenneth said that the tree “grew roots five generations deep leading back to living cousins once or twice removed in many countries.” Finally, after all those years of investigations and building Joseph’s family tree, it was uncovered that Joseph’s Estate would go to his 119 HEIRS(!) which were spread out in Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Germany, United Kingdom, Canada, Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Chicago. Holy … cow. In the Block Club Chicago article, they shared an awesome picture of Kenneth Piercey (and Rodney Piercey, which I’m assuming is some relative of Kenneth) in front of a table with a long scroll of paper. Kenneth shared, “In my office I have a scroll 15 feel long that can go across the entire room. I’ve never seen a case this complicated before.”
You may be thinking … okay, with an $11 Million Dollar Estate and 119 heirs, how much are they all getting? Well, the Block Club Chicago article, Piercey shared that it’ll take time (likely a few years) to get the money distributed since there are some international ties going on – but after taxes, on average, an heir will get a check in the amount of $60,000 each. I guess that number (the $11 Million Dollar number) sure shrinks when it’s split between so many people! You know what’s kind of sad, though, too about all these heirs? The article shared that none of the heirs have ever heard of Joseph before – so that’s how “far out” the family tree got. It’s both super sad and super crazy to think about that, right?! Though, Kenneth, the attorney/administrator did mention that he thinks the money will be life-changing for many of the heirs. He shared, “We had to find, basically, the baptismal records, birth certificates, marriage records; everything that we could find. The family had no idea and I think this will be life-changing for many of them.”
While Joseph’s story may seem crazy, likely to not happen, and just plain lucky for those beneficiaries, don’t think this is a one-and-done type of thing. Would you believe me if I told you that we have worked on a similar-ish case? The biggest difference was the amount of the Estate – our case was significantly smaller, so of course it didn’t hit the news. I actually don’t remember even the approximate amount of the Estate, but it was a gentleman that was single and had one child. Prior to his passing, his only child had passed away before him. He was Italian descent so when he passed, we kind of looked around like, “Now what?!” Well, we ended up having our own version of Kenneth’s scroll – we had a HUGE posterboard of this guy’s family tree. Ultimately, we did end up finding his closest blood relatives; they were in Italy and they got his Estate. Like Joseph and his heirs, our clients’ heirs had no idea he existed.
You know, in my office, when we draft estate plans, we ask this very question – which sometimes seems silly when a client has a rather large family, but we still do – we ask, “If all of you and all of your beneficiaries pass away, say in a big common accident, then what? Who do you want to get your stuff?” It throws people off all the time. Like, “WHO did you just kill off Jenny?!” Sometimes people actually get a little uneasy about this question – it’s one yucky question, right? Like EVERYONE is gone, ugh. But it’s so important – like I said, especially for small families. So, if and when you #DoYourEstatePlan, if your attorney does not ask this question, bring it up! Make sure this issue is appropriately addressed in your plan.
So, these stories here on Legal Tea – just when you think, “That is so crazy, Jenny! That won’t happen to my family.” Please keep in mind all of these stories are real people; whether they’re celebrities, like on estate planning of the rich and famous episodes, or they’re like Joseph here, under a current trends episode, or even if they are clients of my office, like under a cautionary tale episode. Everyone is real … they’re not make believe! So, I wouldn’t just generally assume the things on here won’t happen to you; these “real people” in these episode could be you, your family, or your friends. Just remember, my friends, that you’re not immune from becoming a Legal Tea episode!
Okay, let’s wrap this episode up -- next week’s topic is on estate planning of the rich and the famous – on that episode, we’re going to dive into what happened following te passing of the music legend, James Brown. Sometimes called the Godfather of Soul, he sure wasn’t the Godfather of Estate Planning. Shew! Tune in next Tuesday, Legal Tea Listeners, to hear all about it. Talk to you then and stay well!