Florida Elder Law & Estate Planning Blog

An Intestate Estate Mystery

The elderly Joseph Stancak was always a mystery to his neighbors. He lived in a run-down home in the Gage Park section of Chicago, keeping to himself. The neighbors knew that he was not a big spender, or perhaps he just did not have much to spend. He wore old clothing, drove a beat-up 1985 Oldsmobile, did his own home repairs and auto repairs, and mowed his yard with an ancient lawn mower. His home had no air conditioning; when the summer heat became oppressive, he sat in the yard to cool off.

The mystery that was Joseph Stancak  deepened when he passed away on December 23, 2016 at age 87. That is when the truth emerged: Stancak was a classic example of the “millionaire next door.” He left behind an estate worth $11 million, mostly in securities, the rest in uncashed dividends and savings.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone so reclusive and frugal, Stancak did not leave behind a will. Nor did he appear to have any relatives. No one claimed his money, or his ashes. According to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, the mystery man had left the largest unclaimed estate to date in American history. His unclaimed estate was handed over to the Illinois Treasurer.

The Hunt for Heirs

Having a properly drafted and up-to-date estate plan allows you to control who gets your assets once you are gone. Without a plan, the state considers you to have died “intestate,” and distributes your money based solely on your bloodline. With Stancak deceased, it was now up to the state to find his blood relatives – if any – and to distribute his estate to them.

Stancak never married or had children. All his six siblings had predeceased him and also did not have children. Researchers hired to hunt for his heirs ultimately found 119 distant relatives going back five generations. Seventy-six resided in Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany and Slovakia (Stancak’s parents had emigrated from Poland to the U.S.).  Others resided in Canada, and 16 in the U.S. Ironically, a first cousin once removed, Anna Madeja, lived just blocks from Stancak. But like all the others, she had never heard of him. Once the years-long hunt was over, the court-appointed administrator of the estate, Kenneth Piercey, had 1,000 pages of genealogical documentation.

Intestate distributions are made “per stirpes,” meaning the percentage of the estate allocated to each heir depends on the number of descendants in each familial line, and where the heir falls within that line. Under this formula, most of the 119 relatives were earmarked to receive under $100,000. One heir, the only one in that bloodline, would get about $300,000, or 5% of the total estate. Of course, when all is said and done, the estate would come to less than $11 million. Legal fees, accounting fees, genealogical research expenses, and taxes (Stancak had not filed a return for the last three years of his life) would have to be deducted, bringing the value of the estate down to about $7 million.

Everything was set to be distributed to 119 surprised, happy heirs this year… until another mystery emerged.

A Surprise Will Deepens The Mystery

Just prior to distributions being made, a will purported to be Stancak’s was filed in the Cook County court. The will is shaping up to be as mysterious as Stancak himself. In it, Stancak leaves the entirety of his estate to an organization called Smart Kids Child Care and its president, Asad Mahmood. Signed by Stancak on August 19, 2015, it was drawn up by John Alleman, an Illinois personal injury attorney. Alleman died in a plane crash shortly after the signing and before Stancak passed away.

Piercey doubts the will’s authenticity. No one can find the copy supposedly held by Alleman. There are other red flags, too: There is no evidence yet showing that Stancak had any connection whatsoever to Smart Kids Child Care or to Mahmood. The organization is not at the provided address in The Bronx, New York, and has neither a website or phone number. Piercey questions why Stancak would seek legal advice from Alleman, whose office was located a considerable distance from Stancak’s home. He also believes the signature on the document does not resemble Stancak’s customary signature. Last, Piercey wonders why the will showed up only when the case made headlines, years after Stancak’s death.

Maybe Stancak really wanted to leave his fortune to this charity, but as yet, no one knows if the will is legitimate. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for December 13. Until it is decided, the assets in the estate are frozen and 119 heirs can do nothing but wait. A new chapter is being written in the mystery that is Joseph Stancak’s life, and death.

As for the rest of us, there’s no mystery about what we need to do: Everyone needs a valid estate plan. Creating a thoughtful estate plan ensures that the people you truly want to inherit your assets, do. It reduces the risk of someone making a false claim on your estate, and will save your heirs money that otherwise would be drained in administrative fees. Contact The Karp Law Firm for your estate planning consultation at 561-625-1100.