What happens when someone dies alone in their apartment?

October 23, 2015

Dear Friends,

In case you haven’t seen it, I'd like to draw your attention to a long, front-page story in the New York Times from last Sunday in which the reporter explains, in detail, what happens when someone dies alone and no friends or relatives step forward.  You can read the article on the Times’s website by clicking here.

I have to say that I was uncomfortable with the reporter’s use of photographs of the interior and contents of the apartment of the deceased man whom he profiles, Mr. George Bell.  The inclusion of these photos seemed to me to be unnecessarily intrusive.  But the article does provide a useful overview of a long and complex process of which a good number of the seniors we serve may eventually become a part.  If you’d rather not read the whole article, I offer below a mostly chronological summary.

A body is found and an investigation begins

In July 2014, after a neighbor reports a bad odor, police break into the apartment and find a body in his apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens.  The police call the office of the medical examiner (“ME”), which sends an investigator to rule out foul play and look for evidence that could help identify the body and locate next of kin.

The ME transports the body, tentatively identified as that of Mr. Bell, to the morgue at Queens Hospital Center, where it is stored in a cooled locker.

NYPD detectives take names and numbers that they find in the apartment, call the numbers, and get nothing.

Personnel at the morgue take fingerprints, which are sent to city, state, and federal authorities – with no hits.

The public administrator starts working on the estate

After nine days and no next of kin having come forward, the ME reports the death to the office of the Queens County public administrator (the “PA”), which manages estates when there is no one else to do so -- usually when there is no will or no known heirs.

ME personnel start cold-calling hospitals and doctors in the area, trying to obtain information about Mr. Bell.

Next, two investigators from the PA go to Mr. Bell’s apartment to look for clues about who Mr. Bell’s relatives were and what he owned.  (These investigators work in pairs to discourage theft.)  After three separate visits to the cluttered apartment, they collect about $500 in cash.  They also find a 30-year-old will, in which Mr. Bell says he wants to be cremated.

A “decedent property agent” in the PA’s office then examines papers and photos that the investigators have delivered to him from the apartment; he finds tax returns, bank statements, and some names of friends.  The agent searches on-line, finds addresses for the friends, and sends them letters asking them to contact him.

The PA next has the post office forward Mr. Bell’s mail to its office, so that magazine subscriptions can be canceled (and the resulting refunds added to the estate), bank account statements examined, etc.

The cremation of Mr. Bell’s body is arranged

A request is made to the VA for burial in one of its national cemeteries.  The VA denies the request on the ground that Mr. Bell, though having served in the reserves, had not seen action.

The deputy PA selects a funeral home in Forest Hills – one of 16 regulars that she uses – to handle Mr. Bell’s body after his official identification.

On July 28, the ME files an unverified death certificate.

In late September, the ME finally locates a radiology lab that possesses X-rays of Mr. Bell’s; upon their comparison with X-rays taken after his death, the ME officially declares the body to be that of Mr. Bell.

On November 15, Mr. Bell’s body – in a coffin with an American flag draped over it – is brought to a crematorium in Middle Village for cremation. 

Mr. Bell’s property is sold

On Dec. 30, Mr. Bell’s car is sold at auction and the proceeds, less expenses, are added to his estate.

In January 2015, workers from a junk removal business arrive at Mr. Bell’s apartment to remove its contents.  Virtually everything is sent to the dump – except for a handful of items that the workers choose to keep for themselves.

On February 20, Mr. Bell’s coop apartment is listed for sale; once sold, the proceeds are added to his estate.

A search is made for relatives and people named in Mr. Bell’s will

A kinship investigator at the office of the lawyer for the PA works to try to locate the people named in Mr. Bell’s will.  She also must, by law, search for Mr. Bell’s next of kin, down to a first cousin once-removed, the furthest relative eligible to lay claim to an estate.  These people would need to be notified in case they wanted to contest the will. 

The investigator creates maternal and paternal family trees for Mr. Bell.  When one of three cousins she has identified cannot be located, notice is published in a local newspaper for four weeks.

The investigator learns that some of the people named in Mr. Bell’s will have died.  Those who had outlived Mr. Bell would have their share of his estate passed to their heirs.

A lawyer submits the will to court, and money is distributed

The PA’s lawyer goes to Queens Surrogate’s Court to request probate of Mr. Bell’s will.  Because he alerts the court of the possibility of unknown relatives and the unfound cousin, the court appoints a special kind of "guardian" to review the will on behalf of these possible people.

In September, the lawyer submits to the court a final accounting of Mr. Bell’s assets.  Various expenses are paid from the estate – to the city, to the PA, to the lawyer, to the funeral parlor, to the cleanup company, to the kinship investigator, to the fire department (for the ambulance transport), and to the city for an old parking ticket.

The remaining funds are split between the one person named in the will who is still alive, and the heirs of the another who is deceased but who outlived Mr. Bell.  Another man, who was not named in the will, receives the contents of Mr. Bell’s bank accounts, in which the man was named beneficiary.

What can we take away from this?

Mr. Bell's story highlights the benefits of putting in place one's "life-planning documents" -- your advance directives and last will and testament.  While it is true that your power of attorney and healthcare proxy cease to be valid after your death, they can provide valuable information to those whose job it is to track down friends and family.  If, for example, Mr. Bell had had in his apartment a healthcare proxy that provided the name and phone number of one of his friends, that person could have been contacted right away.  And even though one of Mr. Bell's friends received some of his estate via a beneficiary designation on his bank accounts, his last will and testament caused the rest of his estate to pass to one of his pals and the heirs of another -- and not to his distant relatives overseas, who would have inherited the estate had Mr. Bell not prepared a will.

As you know, volunteer lawyers at our partner law firms can help your clients, if they are eligible, to prepare these life-planning documents.  So please keep faxing or e-mailing us those referrals -- by means of our intake form and questionnaire -- or sending clients to our many free legal advice and referral clinics.  By the way, while we await the completion of our new informational brochure on the services, we've been giving people a handout, available by clicking here, that provides a succinct summary of the different documents that we can help with.

All the best,

Alex