11 July 2013

Thriller Thursday - Will a Trust Prevent Identification of Heirs?

A bit of an update about my search for a Probate record in California from the large estate of my great aunt Estella Anna Wersel: my Mom found the letter my grandmother received explaining the disbursement from my grandfather's aunt's estate. The letter is dated in 1966, is from Bank of America's Trust Office in San Diego, and states that she will receive 1/27th of the proceeds of the estate at a cost basis from the date of death of Stella (as she was known) on 9 July 1956.  That's not a typo; there was a 10 year span between her death and the execution of the Trust after the death of the Trust's original beneficiary, Stella Piper.

Here's a partial transcription of the letter (as I'm to understand it; it was dictated to me over the phone by my father, James Cosgrove on 9 July 2013):

Bank of America
San Diego District Trust Office
PO Box 1631
San Diego, CA 92112

Mrs. Victor Wersel
Elmhurst, Illinois 60126

Elmhurst National Bank
Mr. M. W. Huey
Vice President
Elmhurst, Illinois 60126

June 23, 1966

Enclosed is our trust ….[redacted]

In the matter of the Trust of Estella A. Wersel: [redacted]...you will receive a 1/27th share of the Trust. The cost basis was determined on July 9th 1956 the date of her death.

[Letter was signed by]
H E Johnson, Jr

Bond form number #1083567 (list of assets)

[Signed by] Sally Cuff

I 'know' that, according to two separate sources (unknown to one another), the person who wrote the original Trust for Estella Anna Wersel did so with a potentially nefarious intent. He was, again according to both of these sources, a 'cousin' or 'relative' of Stella Wersel's. The fact that the document ensured that Stella's long time companion, Stella Piper, was cared for until her death was a bit of a surprise. However, I have to believe the bigger surprise was the fact that, although Stella Piper was two years Stella Wersel's senior, she lived nearly 10 years longer and was 92 years old when she died in 1965.

It was only because a fairly well-to-do relative (my grandmother's sister-in-law) had hired an attorney in San Diego to follow up with regard to the Estate that my family even learned there WAS an estate. The attorney notified the Bank that there were living heirs and provided contact information for my grandmother and relatives in Cincinnati, Ohio.

I was able to uncover that the same person who wrote the original Trust also made arrangements for Stella Piper, and that he'd written a 'no obituary, no service' clause in her Will. This seemed strange to me at the time I found out (through the Funeral home that took care of her body) and I don't know (and doubt we'll ever find out) whether Stella really knew he'd done this. What I do know is that, by eliminating the obituary and any services that a notice would've been published for, it would've been close to impossible for the relatives outside of California to know of Stella's passing and thus the disbursement of the Estate. I've come to believe that he intended to passively keep Stella Piper's passing secret, which would ensure the Estate (which I've heard from different sources was between $100,000 - $1,000,000 in 1966) would have gone to him as the 'sole' living heir. Obviously, this is entirely conjecture on my part, which is why I have not named this person. It is also entirely possible that he was simply following the wishes of the Stellas and that he would have contacted the family eventually.

As the document states, there were 27 recipients of funds from the Estate. I have only been able to identify, at most, 11 of those 27 recipients. This is the reason I'm pursuing this document so rabidly. There are 16 other recipients who are currently unknown to me all of whom were most likely related to my family. 

So, the $64,000 question, no pun intended, is this: 

Would some record of to who the Trust was distributed exist? 

In 1966 California, would a notice have been posted in a  newspaper to allow the heirs time to contact the Bank, or would it have been the Bank's obligation to locate all living heirs? 

Does anyone from California know if BofA has an archives where these documents might reside? 

Would there be ANY court records of this transaction, either when the Trust was originally enforced after 9 July 1956 or after the death of the first beneficiary in 1965? (Note: Orange and L.A. Probate records were checked and no record was found.)

Am I EVER gonna get my hands on any evidence from Estella's estate?

STELLA!!!!!!!  STELLA!!!!!!!


  1. This is fascinating as I work in law. (These are MY comments, NOT legal advice!)

    If it was a Trust written by a lawyer, the whole purpose it to specify distribution plans after death and avoid probate. A Trust is generally a private document - only the successor Trustee (individual or corporate) and recipients will know what was disbursed, and often the heirs only what their portion was in general. It is the Trustee's job to find the heirs designated in the document. A Trust would not be advertised.

    Probates will be public and, at least in Illinois, are usually filed in the county of death. A probate is needed if the decedent had assets without beneficiaries and/or not transferred to the Trust.

    My inclination is that you won't find any records unless you can find a copy of the original Trust document among someone's personal papers.

    (Again, not legal advice!) Good luck with your search!

  2. Good heavens, what intrigue! Such complex deceit is like a plot line out of John Le Carre -- if a few countries also were involved, in addition to (theoretical) beneficiaries. Nefarious intent . . . an estate with a "cloaking device" like a Klingon spaceship. What a remarkable tale. I hope you can find a way to penetrate all this willed invisibility. Astounding.


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