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.