They’re on the Trail of Missing Heirs
By Heather Ibbotson, Brantford Expositor
William Adam had never heard of a second cousin once removed named Mima Wakefield. They were separated by generations, as well as geography. Adam, 81, was born in Scotland and lives in St. Catharines, Ont. Wakefield had lived in Saskatchewan and died at 97 in Victoria, B. C., in 2007. She left no known heirs.
So when Brantford-based heir tracer Steve Cogan called Adam about a year ago with the news that he was an heir to a share of Wakefield’s $400,000 – plus estate, Adam was skeptical. “It was a surprise for sure. I thought it was a hoax,” Adam said in an interview this week. Even employees at his bank told him to ignore it. Luckily for Adam, he didn’t. Cogan was legit. He had all his facts straight, including abundant details of Adam’s family history. And he offered the name of the estate lawyer as a reference. It turned out that Adam was one of 35 happy beneficiaries – and the only Canadian – to recently receive a nearly $10,000 windfall.
“It was unbelievable. I’ve already cashed the cheque,” Adam said. The husband and wife heir-tracing team of Steve Cogan and Tessa Howes, working as Cogan & Associates, operate from their Brantford home conducting estate searches for lawyers across North America.
The couple, who moved to Brantford two years ago from Mississauga, have been in business for about 15 years. Cogan started out finding missing people with a private investigator’s licence. Howes’ father worked as an heir tracer in Toronto for decades.
Cogan does most of the research and works the phones, while Howes compiles the research reports, maintains the company website and handles publicity. Their cases originate mostly in Canada and the U. S. but the research often leads around the globe due to immigration and emigration. “Families get scattered,” Cogan said.
Most heir searching cases involve people who have died intestate (without a will), with no known heirs or surviving close relatives. A few cases involve tracking down a named beneficiary whose current whereabouts is unknown. “The thrill of the hunt is the best part of the job,” Cogan said.
The Wakefield case proved complex because Cogan had to step back in time and then work forward following distant bloodlines to find heirs to the estate. There were no first cousins and no surviving second cousins. Some 16 months later, Cogan had found 35 surviving second cousins once removed – all over 70 years of age -who were tracked down and notified of the inheritance,” Cogan said.
The beneficiaries were in Canada, the U. S., Australia, England, Scotland, and Ireland.
Cogan said the case involved the most beneficiaries of any of his cases thus far, adding that it was also “right up there in the degree of difficulty.” The final report Cogan and Howes submitted to Wakefield’s lawyer contained family tree information on 2,400 people, with detailed genealogical proof. Most beneficiaries located in heir tracing work never knew or even heard of the deceased person, Cogan said. “But they’re happy about the money. It’s a nice windfall, especially for elderly people,” he said.
The work pays well for Cogan’s business, too. The heir tracer’s fee is a percentage of the estate, usually ranging from 20% to 40%, depending on the amount of work involved, he said. Lawyer fees and taxes also come off the top. The beneficiaries of the estate split what remains. Cogan and Howes currently have about 20 cases on the go. “We’re really busy. We got five new cases in the last month,” he said.
Another successful case involved a man named Fred Y*, an only child who died in 1981 with no will, no family and few friends. The estate was held in trust by the Ontario government. Cogan became aware of the case in 1995. He and his wife traced Fred’s family, finding an uncle who had seven children (Fred’s cousins). Three of the cousins were still alive and residing in Alberta and none had ever heard of Fred. Each cousin received $47,000 from Fred’s estate.
Not every case has a satisfying conclusion. Some cases simply go nowhere, Cogan said. No relatives can be located or no solid proofs can be obtained. In those instances, the money in the estate reverts to the government, Cogan said, adding that his company is only paid if a search proves successful.
For William Adam, and likely many other surprise beneficiaries in heir-tracing cases, the initial wonderment at the news and the happy cashing of a sometimes hefty cheque, melts into sentimental musing about the stranger whose lonely death and large estate prompted the search. Adam said he finds himself wondering about his unknown distant cousin, Mima Wakefield. “You wonder who these people were. What was she like?” he asks. “I wish I had met her.”
A Venezuelan Connection
A few years ago, an Ontario lawyer contacted us to find the heirs of a recently deceased woman who had died in her fifties. The lawyer knew who her mother was; she was also deceased. He knew only the name of her father, but said that this man was known to be from somewhere in South America.
We tracked the father’s family down to Venezuela. It turns out he had come to Canada after abandoning five children in Venezuela when they were all under ten years old. He was never heard from again.
We contacted these five children, who are now in their sixties, and dealt with them for about four months because they simply couldn’t believe that we knew anything about their father. All they knew about him was his name and that he had taken off. They didn’t know where he had gone. They were shocked to learn that they had another sister, and saddened to learn that she had passed away.
It worked out very well, and in the end we received a nice thank-you letter from one of the siblings. They each inherited $70,000, which is a king’s ransom in Venezuela.
Tragically, one of the five children was murdered about six months before the money was released. He was killed in the jungles of Venezuela, where he had been working for a mining company that was ambushed. His body was burned along with ten others.
Venezuelan authorities could not provide DNA or any other proof that it was him, which was a complication for us. In the end, it took about six months just to get a death certificate and have the government confirm his identity. His portion of the inheritance went to his children.
From a Woman’s Shelter to an Inheritance
We were trying to find information about a woman who had died in New York City in 2004. She had come to New York from Germany in the 1940s and had married an American man. They had no children, and they divorced five years later. In Germany, authorities had an address in Queens, New York, from 1983, but nothing else. This turned out to be a woman’s shelter that had closed years ago.
After their divorce, the woman’s ex-husband had re-married twice. He was deceased, but we managed to track down his widows, and they provided us with information about his first wife — the heir we were searching for — and the fact that she was homeless.
Authorities in New York were at first unable to find any record of death, but our contacts based there managed to contact the coroner, who confirmed her death. Her brother’s children in Germany were provided with the information we had found about their late aunt, and they were ultimately the beneficiaries of a sizable estate.
Sometimes we have difficulty convincing people that they are the recipients of a great deal of money. In the case of one beneficiary, a Jewish woman in her nineties living in Connecticut, we had to locate her son, who convinced his mother of our legitimacy. Her parents had been killed in the Holocaust, and she was the beneficiary of $200,000 from Holocaust reparations.
Often when we bring money forward from a source like the Holocaust — but really any instance in which there is family trauma — people refuse to make the claim because of the negative association and painful memories.
Sometimes people who observe certain religions or superstitions will not accept money from the dead. In those cases, there is little we can do to help them.
The Story of a Lady’s Maid
We were looking for a woman who was born in Paris, France, and had come to New York City on an ocean liner via Southampton in 1947, when she was twenty-one and working as a “lady’s maid.” Her last known address was a hotel in England.
Her employer was a wealthy German man who, among other things, had convinced European Jews to move their money to Switzerland. Many of these Jews did not survive, but this man did. In 1947, he sailed to Haiti, along with his staff.
A few years later, he and his entourage settled in New York City. The woman we were tracing ended up with a permanent New York address by 1959. She later began working for his wife, a New York society woman who ultimately inherited his fortune. It was this woman, the German man’s last wife, who had included her lady’s maid in her will. We found the beneficiary living in a mobile home in a small town south of Montreal.
Lost and Found Funds
It is not uncommon for people with considerable wealth to lose track of some of their various accounts and investments. In one such case, a father died leaving numerous investments, some of which had not been included when the estate was filed with the government. We informed his children of their father’s error and were overwhelmed by their gratitude.