Bill aims to close unsettled estates after three years if no progress

KINGWOOD — Preston County has more than 564 unsettled estates on file at the county courthouse, just for January 2000 through July 2016.
Hundreds of older estates have dragged on for decades. But that’s about to change.
HB 2746 amended West Virginia Code 44-2-19a, “Reports of delinquent filings and administrative closing of unprogressed estates.” The amendment code aims to close estates after three years, if no progress or “unsatisfactory progress” has been made in settling them.
Deputy County Clerk Lynette Shahan, who handles estates for the clerk’s office, briefed Preston County commissioners on the new law last week.
“This change will be a major undertaking for at least the first round of unsettled estates older than three years,” Shahan wrote in a memo.
“There are many more prior to 2000,” Shahan wrote. She estimated some date back to 1900.
“I think th clerks and deputies wanted a way to close out all these old estates that have never been closed, that are just sitting there idle for years and years and years,” Shahan said. “But it looks like it’s going to be a process.”
Twice a year, the clerk’s office will present commissioners a list of unsettled estates more than three years old. Once the county commission enters an order, the clerk’s office will have to notify each estate.
“I’m questioning how far back we have to go,” Shahan said. Looking at the list of open estates, she found about 100 just in the “A” listing for 1900-2000.
“I would think they would want to cap this at some point, so that’s our biggest question,” she said. “How far back do we have to go with this? Can we kind of pick and choose what we decide to do?”
The code isn’t specific. It just says older than three years.
And Shahan is unsure whether letters will have to be sent out to all heirs, personal representatives and creditors in every estate. She noted that prior to 2009, when 911 road addressing went through, the county used rural route addresses. Those rural addresses are the only ones on file in many old estates.
“How are you going to track somebody down from 1910?” County Commissioner Don Smith wondered.
Shahan said she sees where the law might be helpful to those doing title searches. If, for example, a credit card company has a claim against an unsettled estate, that would show up as a lien when someone searches for property ownership. Yet it might be impossible to track down the creditor after all this time to get it released.
“So this would allow them to close that estate, so they don’t have to worry about it anymore and the title’s clear and all is good,” Shahan said.
Preston Assessor Connie Ervin said it would help clean up land books on county real estate, “as far as so-and-so heirs that died in 1910 that nobody has ever taken care of.”
Smith said he could see the benefit long-term, but there will be a lot of work short-term to get caught up. “Once that happens you can just keep the flow of it.”
Shahan hopes to learn more about implementing the law at the annual statewide county clerk’s conference in June. Commission President Dave Price said he will raise the issue at the West Virginia Association of Counties meeting as well.
“If it’s that here, imagine Kanawha County,” Price said.
The first report is due July 5.

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