Nov. 24, 2013 -- Q: Dear Dr. Don,
My question is about how to find out whether my father has left any assets to me if he has died, as I fear.
He and I are estranged. I have not heard from him in years. His last known address is Port Arthur, Texas. I live in New York. I have tried to find him on family search sites. I am not sure if this is just a way for sites to get money from me. Isn't there an official way for me to find out whether he is deceased? I do not have his Social Security number, which might hamper a search. One big question involves whether I am entitled to assets he left behind?
Please help if you can.
-- Zoe Zeal
A: Dear Zoe,
Genealogy sites search obituaries, the Social Security Death Master File and other sources for a record of a person's death. You can also purchase access to the Social Security Death Index through the National Technical Information Service. I didn't perform an exhaustive search, but a website called DOBsearch.com will allow you to search the Social Security Death Master file for free. Some genealogy sites offer short-term free trials that you can cancel before being charged a fee.
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If his date of death is established, you can request a verification of death from the Texas Office of Vital Statistics, assuming that he died in Texas. A verification letter isn't a legal substitute for a death certificate. In Texas, for example, you need to have a substantial and valid reason to request an official death certificate. That could include being a beneficiary on a life insurance policy.
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Your father's estate would be distributed by a will, if he had one. If he died intestate, without a will, his estate would be distributed under his state's laws. While it is possible that you have a claim on the estate, it is also possible that you were written out of the will.
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You could also look at the public records available in the county seat to search for your father's records, including those of the Probate Court. It would help you to see if his estate went through probate.
Ultimately, you need to ask whether this legwork is worth the effort. Only you can decide.
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This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.