English Laws of Intestacy:  Why James Seligman’s American Relatives Inherited Money Fifty Years after He Died

I was puzzled by the story of James Seligman’s estate.  Why did his great-great-nieces and great-great-nephews inherit from his estate fifty years after he died?  Although I still do not know, I did find out something about English intestacy laws, i.e., the rules for distribution of an estate when the deceased did not leave a will.

According to the gov.uk website, when a person’s estate exceeds £250,000 and there are no children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, the surviving spouse or civil partner inherits all the property up to £450,000 and all the personal possessions without limitation, plus 50% of any property in excess of £450,000.  The remainder is divided among the surviving siblings of the deceased person. If the siblings have died, their children inherit their parent’s share.   See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intestacy#England_and_Wales

So let’s assume that James Seligman left an estate worth £458,000 when he died.  His widow Clara would inherit £450,000 plus half of the 8,000 excess or £4,000.  That would have left £4,000 to be distributed among James’ siblings or their children, if a sibling had died.  From the family tree prepared by the agency hired to investigate James’ family, it looks like they only found two siblings, Bernard and Adolph.  (It’s possible there were other trees that I did not see.)  Since both Bernard and Adolph had died before James died, their children would have inherited their share of James’ estate, or £2000 to Bernard’s children and £2000 to Adolph’s children.  Bernard had three surviving children when he died, Eva, James Leon, and Arthur.  Each would inherit one third of that £2000, or £667.

But for some reason it seems that nothing was distributed at the time of James’ death in 1930.  Instead, the estate was not distributed until after Clara, his widow, died in 1977.  By then, Eva, James Leon, and Arthur had died, and in fact, all of their children had died by then except for Eva’s son Stanley Cohen.  I assume that therefore the estate would have been shared by Stanley and his brothers’ children (my father and his sister and the two sons of Maurice Cohen) and by Arthur’s grandchildren.  Since James Leon did not have any children or grandchildren who were still alive in 1977, I assume his share would fail.

So assuming my purely hypothetical numbers, Stanley would get one third of Eva’s share (£222), my father, my aunt, and Maurice’s two sons would each get one sixth of Eva’s share (£111), and Arthur’s share (£667) would have been divided among his grandchildren.

What I don’t understand is why this distribution would not have been made in 1930 when James died. According to Wikipedia, if James and Clara had had children, “the spouse or civil partner inherits all personal belongings of the deceased, the first £250,000 of the estate and a lifetime’s interest in half of the amount above £250,000.“  That would mean that Clara had only a life estate in half of the excess over £250,000.  She could have used the interest on that excess, but not used the principal itself.  That excess would then be distributed to the other heirs after she died.  But James and Clara did not have children.  They were only married for a few months, and there is no indication of any children conceived before James died.  So this provision would not seem to apply, and if it did, presumably that child would inherit the excess, not James’ great-great-nephews/nieces.

Perhaps someone out there knows more about the English law of intestate succession and can explain.

10 thoughts on “English Laws of Intestacy:  Why James Seligman’s American Relatives Inherited Money Fifty Years after He Died

  1. Very strange that it took 50 years for the money to be divided.
    As of today, if an estate is not claimed within 30 years it is sold and the government inherit all monies. there are heir hunting companies these days which buy unclaimed estates and use their own resources and money to research the deceased’s family (it’s big business now, and many companies compete against each other). In 1930 resources and communication was much harder, the Seligman tree was probably to difficult to research in 1930. 50 years later things had changed and records were more accessible, giving rise to heir hunting companies. Perhaps the 30 year rule has only recently changed, perhaps prior to 1980 an estate could lie unclaimed for 50 years (it’s a nice round figure for a start). Clara may not have known any information about Seligman’s and finally in 1980 just before the government benefited an heir company must have taken up the challenge.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Stephen, for this information. It makes sense to me. I have been trying to figure out this puzzle without the benefit of any knowledge of English law and practice. These insights help a lot.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Your very welcome, and my apologies as I have some corrections for you from my previous comment; in 1980 the limitations act came into force, so I would guess heir hunting companies had only a very small window to find relatives off unclaimed estates.
        Once this act came into force in 1980, all estates older then 12 years automatically fell into the hands of the British treasurer.



      • Hmmm, it looks like it took effect on May 1, 1981, so if the claims were filed before that date, they probably were not barred by the statute of limitations. There must have been a mad rush to find claims for all possible pending estates, including that of James Seligman. Even though it was not finally resolved until years later, once the file was claimed in 1980, the claimants were not time barred. Very interesting!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Heir hunting is something we are all entitled to do as a hobby, anybody is entitled to research unclaimed estates. I have often thought about doing this as I imagine it can be rewarding in both a positive way and financially too.
        I would love a career which includes my favourite hobby, and working from home would certainly benefit my toddler.

        You mentioned in a previous post about James Seligman’s connection to Scotland (residence), all Scottish records are held on the following site, it’s a pay as you go site but may help if your still researching his life.



      • There certainly are legitimate reasons and legitimate people who engage in heir hunting for purposes of locating the rightful heirs to an estate. One of my mentors, who is a certified genealogist, does this quite often. You should look into it—I am pursuing this purely as a hobby, but if I were 30 years younger, I’d be very tempted to pursue as a career.

        I will take a look at the Scotland site—thanks!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: A Difficult Life: Julius Seligmann « Brotmanblog: A Family Journey

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.