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Who Has Claim to the Largest Unclaimed Estate in History?

By Catherine Hodder, Esq. | Last updated on

When reclusive Chicago resident Joseph Stancak passed away at 87, his neighbors were surprised to discover he was the “Millionaire Next Door." In fact, despite living like a miser, his estate is valued at $11 million — the largest unclaimed property amount in American history.

When someone dies, and property isn't claimed, assets in safe deposit boxes and money in bank accounts, mutual funds, and financial institutions go to the state treasurer's office as unclaimed assets. Similarly, any unclaimed life insurance benefits go to the state as well. The state holds these assets until someone files an unclaimed property claim.

Because Stancak died without a will directing who should receive his assets, he died intestate. His estate went to the Cook County probate court for his relatives to claim. However, Stancak never had children, and his six siblings died before him without any children of their own.

Noting the size of the unclaimed funds, Chicago attorney Kenneth Piercy petitioned the probate court to serve as the estate administrator. He searched records to put together a family tree, first going to Stancak's parents and then going back five generations to identify 191 family members, most of them living in Poland and Slovakia. However, before the court issued payments to his long-lost relatives in June of 2023, the court received a petition to enter Stancak's will into probate.

Where Was the Will?

The will submitted in 2023 was purported to have been signed on August 19, 2015, roughly 18 months before Stancak died. The will beneficiaries of Stancak's estate are Smart Kids Child Care Inc. and Asad Mahmood, the company's president. The claimants' attorney, Gregory Markwell, said the will was drafted by John Alleman, an Illinois personal injury attorney, and that there were only two copies of the will: one went to Smart Kids Child Care, and one went to Alleman. Allegedly, Alleman was supposed to inform Mahmood when Stancak died. However, Alleman died in a plane crash months after the will's signature date and before Stancak died.

As a result of this newly found will, Cook County Judge Daniel O. Tiernan halted payments to Stancak's extended family members until the court determines if the will is legitimate. If the court finds the will is valid, the estate goes to Smart Kids and Mahmood, not his blood relations.

What Makes a Will Valid?

Although state law varies, generally a will must be in writing and signed by the willmaker, called the testator. The testator signs their will in front of two witnesses. If there is a dispute about the will's legitimacy, the court may call the witnesses to testify about the testator and the circumstances of the signing.

A court is looking to make sure the testator has a sound mind and is free from coercion, duress, or fraud. A sound mind means the testator intends to make the document their will, understand who their natural beneficiaries (family members) are, and know a will distributes their estate. A will can be declared void if a result of fraud, coercion, or duress.

It is unknown if the purported will had witnesses or if those witnesses are able to testify that Stancak signed the will voluntarily with the intent to make it his will.

What Is a Self-Proving Affidavit?

Most states allow the use of a self-proving affidavit. The affidavit is a statement made by the two witnesses that they saw the testator sign their will, that the testator knew it was their will, and that the testator was of sound mind and free of coercion or duress. The witnesses sign in front of the testator and a notary. If a will has a self-proving affidavit, a court can use that as evidence of a validly executed will without needing witnesses to testify.

Who Gets the Money?

The entire story of Joseph Stancak's estate is, to quote Winston Churchill, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." Nothing is known about how Stancak acquired his wealth as he lived meagerly. There are questions about whether any relationship existed between Stancak and Smart Kids Child Care and Asad Mahmood. And no one can find a copy of the will supposedly kept by Alleman.

Estate administrator Piercy disputes the validity of the will, arguing that a recluse would not leave where he lived in Gage Park to use an attorney in another part of the Chicago area, let alone travel to New York to sign the document. He claims the signature on the will does not match Stancak's previous signatures. He questions why the will was introduced seven years after Stancak's death and the resulting nationwide attention. To add to his suspicions, Piercey claims Smart Kids Child Care does not have a phone number or website, and their address in the Bronx is being used by another company.

The court will determine the will's validity and rule who is the rightful owner of the unclaimed money. This perfectly illustrates how careful estate planning could avoid potentially false claims to your estate. Even if you don't have an $11 million estate, you should take steps to make sure your money goes to who you want.

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