Wed, Feb. 02, 2005


CK - Washington.   An annoying moral and legal problem arises regularly in the international probate, employment benefit and compensation area when beneficiaries of German or European payors reside in the United States and die there.

Certain compensation plans in Europe, such as those for victims of the Nazi regime, pay lifetime benefits to US persons. Then, there are pension plans funding retired employees who stayed in, or moved to, the United States. Often, such plans require annual certificates attesting to the fact that the beneficiary is alive, Lebensbescheinigung.

More often than one would assume such benefits continue to be remitted, by automatic deposit, into the bank accounts of beneficiaries who die before the next due date for such certificates. The payor does not learn about the opening of the resulting estate, in many instances, and fails to file a claim with the estate for a refund of payments made after death.

Just as often, the estate does not know about the potential claim for death benefits that may be filed with the payor and misses a deadline.

Morally, resolving the mutual claims by way of a settlement that waives the deadlines would appear to be a just approach. Whether that is legally possible depends on various factors, like laws and regulations governing the payor's plan and the state laws controlling the latitude available to executors and administrators of estates in probate.

Breaking out of the deadlock appears easiest when heirs take over the account and abscond--sometimes assuming a new identity--, or falsify life certificates, or use imposters to prove that uncle Fritz is alive and kicking. No leeway for moral or ethical approaches there.

What would seem so annoying about the deadlock? Well, legal costs would be lower without the additional complications that arise with the failure of prompt mutual notification. It is not exactly a pleasure for a lawyer to charge a good bit of fees for an international complication that could be so easily avoided. The intellectual challenge to an international lawyer is fine, on both sides of such cases, and it satisfies to help in such situations. Still, there is happier work to be had in international law.

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