The Death of George Bell

Ever wondered what the process kicks in when people die alone? A fascinating article in the New York Times describes precisely that.

Written a few years ago, the article written by NR Kleinfeld details what happened when the body of George Bell was found in New York sometime after he died. While US laws and processes are different from ours, the piece gives insight into the difficulties faced by officials when it comes to identifying next of kin and what happens to a person’s estate.

George’s body was found when a neighbour concerned about the smell called emergency services. As the body had decomposed, it had clearly been there a while. When firefighters and police broke in, they found an apartment “groaning with possession”, suggesting its occupant had been a hoarder. The medical examiner’s office was called, as it deals with unidentified bodies. The first job is to rule out foul play. Then, they look for evidence of identity and next of kin.

The police notify next of kin, but George’s neighbours didn’t know of any. The man had no wife or siblings. The medical examiner took fingerprints from the body and sent them to city, state and federal databases. No hits were found.

Nine days later, the death was reported to the office of the Queens County public administrator, an organisation that deals with estates when there is no will or known heirs. It processes some 1,500 New York deaths every year. Most cases come from nursing homes and most estates have assets of less than $500, though it did once deal with one worth $16 million.

The office takes a commission of 5 percent of the first $100,000 of an estate, which goes into the city’s general fund, and 1 percent towards expenses.

Two investigators from the Queen’s County office were dispatched to the apartment to try to work out the identity of the body. Although the flat was in a terrible state, it wasn’t the worst they’d seen. One case the office dealt with involved a woman who died standing up as her apartment was so jammed with belongings she couldn’t collapse to the floor.

They found a passport, documents relating to George’s mother and father, tax returns and bank statements revealing that George Bell had been a wealthy man. They also found a will dated 1982, which left his estate to three men and a woman of unknown relation.

The office researched addresses for the four and sent out letters, asking them to confirm their knowledge of George Bell.

In New York, if an apartment’s contents are valuable, auction companies bid for them. If not, cleanout companies get rid of the belongings. George’s apartment was cleaned out.

The body was finally formally identified from old chest X-rays four months after being found. If there are funds, the public administrator follows the wishes of the will or relatives for the disposal of the body. George’s will had specified cremation, and this was carried out. Where there are no relatives, the crematorium stores the ashes.

George’s car was auctioned off and added some $8,600 to his estate.

The public administrator’s office searched for the legatees named in the will. The kinship investigator first has to find any relatives as they will be eligible for a claim on the estate. The office discovered

A family tree was drawn up and five living relatives found on his mother’s side. Relatives in England and Scotland were also discovered. Of those George had named in his will, two were dead, but three others found.

Then, the office heard that Eleanor Flemm (named in the will) had died of a heart attack in February. This meant her estate received her share of George’s because she’d outlived him.

The apartment was sold, the final asset to be liquidated. Probate of the will was granted. George’s assets added up to just over $500,000. His will specified his bank accounts were to go to one person, who received $215,000. The city received a commission of $13,726 and a $3,238 fee. Other expenses included the funeral bill and the money for the cleanout company.

That left $264,000 to be split between one of the men named in the will and the heirs of Eleanor Flemm. The reporter discovered Mrs Flemm had been George’s fiancée years ago. They’d kept in touch over the years, though she hadn’t realised he’d named her in his will.

Daniel Curran, Finders International’s founder and managing director, said: “No doubt about it, the story is fascinating especially to heir hunters like us. At Finders International we often deal with cases where people have died alone.

“I’m glad the reporter went to the effort of finding out so much about the process and the man who died. The piece honours George Bell and his life and goes some way to making up for the anonymous circumstances in which he died.”

Read the full story here.

Finders International offers a fast next of kin tracing service where it appears someone has died alone without living relatives. The service is free for public sector bodies. Email us at [email protected] to find out more.