Each county in Illinois has a Public Administrator. The Office of Public Administrator is established by 755 ILCS 5/13-1 through 5/13-4. Pursuant to these provisions of the Probate Act the Governor appoints a Public Administrator for each of the Counties in Illinois for a four year term.
The Powers and duties of the Public Administrator are defined in 755 ILCS 5/13-4 as follows:
"When a person dies owning any real or personal estate in this State and there is no person in this State having a prior right to administer his estate, the public administrator of the county of which the decedent was a resident, or of the county of which his estate is situated, if the decedent was a non-resident of this State, may take such measures as he deems proper to protect and secure the estate from waste, loss or embezzlement until letters of office on the estate are issued to the person entitled thereto or until a demand for the removal of the personal estate from the State is made by a non-resident representative pursuant to the authority granted by this Act. When letters of office are issued to the public administrator, he has the same powers and duties as other representatives of decedents’ estates appointed under this Act until he is discharged or his authority is sooner terminated by order of court."
Pursuant to 755 ILCS 5/9-3 "Persons entitled to preference in obtaining letters - the Public Administrator is entitled to obtain letters of office after 8 different categories of relatives of a decedent have been ruled out or waived and before a creditor of the estate."
Typically, the Public Administrator’s office is notified by the Coroner, a Hospital or Nursing Home of the death of someone who apparently has no known heirs. Upon such notification the Public Administrator will file a Petition for Letters of Office and a Petition for Authorization to make burial arrangement and to pay those expenses from the assets of the estate. Concurrently, the Public Administrator will go to the residence of the decedent and secure the property and pursuant to the burial authority the Public Administrator will make burial (or in some cases, cremation) arrangement. A memorial or religious service may be arranged, depending upon the circumstances.
The next step is to begin a search of the decedent’s residence to attempt to find any will or trust, cash or other evidence of assets and any address book of the decedent. A postal address change is ordered and a FEIN is obtained for the estate. A search for heirs will follow, but usually genealogical search firms will have begun their searches for heirs immediately after the Petition for Letters of Administration have been filed showing that there are unknown heirs. These firms will contract with heirs that they locate for a percentage of the heir’s share of the estate before they tell the heirs where their inheritance may be. I understand that these firms charge anywhere from 20% to 50% for their services.
After it is determined what assets and debts the decedent had and publication has been made the next step is to liquidate the assets, pay the bills, wait out the claims period, file income and possible estate tax returns, file an accounting and close the estate. If heirs have been found the remaining assets, after payment of the costs of administration, will be paid to them or, if heirs remain unfound, their share will be deposited with the County Treasurer in their name for retrieval by them at some future date.
In addition to no heir estates, the Public Administrator is used by the Probate Court to take charge of estates where there has been a failure to account by an Administrator or Executor, where there may be a conflict of interest and an independent third party administrator is needed or where there may have been an embezzlement of estate funds.
The Public Administrator of Cook County, all of his attorneys, investigators and secretaries are employees of Cook County and all of his office expenses are paid for by Cook County. Any and all fees received from estates are paid to Cook County. In all other Illinois counties the Public Administrator pays all of his own office expenses for associate attorneys, secretaries, office space, utilities, etc. and receive the fees generated by the estates that he administers.
The Public Administrator is also called upon to open an estate where no one else has opened an estate, but a lawsuit for personal injury needs to be brought against the decedent upon his auto insurance policy or at the request of a creditor, such as a former wife due child support or nursing home. Public Aid may need to recover assets of the decedent which may have been appropriated by his or her heirs.
The Public Administrator can help you in the above situations or where you have an executor or administrator client who is not cooperating with you in getting the estate properly managed and closed.
Most estates that the Public Administrator handles are smaller estates with major problems such as:
Nine cats and two dogs and a house where someone’s body has been for several weeks before it was found. You cannot imagine the smell that these situations present.
A house with a one foot wide pathway running through the house with newspapers, magazines, bags of food and what not (dating back 25 years) stacked ceiling high, wall to wall, which takes four semi-trailer size dumpsters to clean out what turns out to be a one bedroom home.
Heirs whose greatest satisfaction will be to see that the other heirs receive nothing from the estate.
Three pit bulldogs and a suicide scene where the decedent took his own life by shooting himself in the head.
1. An estate where the former administrator has done nothing for two years and real properties have gone to waste due to neglect (i.e. buckled hardwood floors and falling in ceilings.)
2. An estate where the decedent’s business worth over a million dollars at the time of his death is worth less than $200,000 five years later due to mismanagement.
Occasionally there is a substantial estate and during the four or so years that I have been Public Administrator of DuPage County I have found the work to be as interesting as any that I have done in the 35 years that I have been practicing law. I find it fascinating to walk into the decedent’s residence and attempt to put together a picture of his or her life. I frequently compare it to putting together a 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle without having the picture for reference. Having practiced in practically every area of the law during my career I find this part of it to be the most challenging, exciting and fulfilling.
Practicing in the Probate Court as much as I do I am always willing to assist other attorneys with questions concerning Probate practice and procedure. So, please feel free to call my office if we can be of any help to you concerning this area of the law.
Paul P. Didzerekis is the Public Administrator of DuPage County, has a private practice in the areas of Estate Planning, Probate, Corporations and Business, Real Estate and Civil Litigation and is a member of the DuPage County Board and Forest Preserve Commission.