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ESCHEATOR

By statute, whenever a person dies intestate and without heirs or known relatives, his estate is required to be escheated to the state. The position of the Escheator was created in 1805 to ensure that the estates of those who died without a will or without heirs would revert to the State of Delaware. Escheators for each county were commissioned by the Governor for five year terms.1 Upon receiving information of such cases, either through his own knowledge or by an informer who was paid a percentage of the proceeds realized from the sale of the estate, the Escheator was required to issue a precept to the sheriff to summon sixteen men to be part of an inquest.2 This inquest was called to determine if the deceased did indeed die without heirs, if he possessed personal and real property, and in whose hands the property currently rested. The findings of the inquest were written as an inquisition signed and sealed by the Escheator and twelve or more members of the inquest. The inquisition was certified and transmitted by the Escheator to the Clerk of the Supreme Court. Any person in possession of property that had belonged to the deceased and objecting to the findings of the inquisition could appeal to the Supreme Court.3 After the Supreme Court was abolished by the 1831 Constitution, such inquisitions and appeals were sent to the Superior Court.4 Immediately after the inquisition, the Escheator issued a writ to the Sheriff commanding him to seize, attach, and secure the goods and chattels of the estate. The writ was returned to the Escheator with an inventory and appraisement of the goods and chattels. The Sheriff then sold the property at public auction and turned over the proceeds to the State Treasurer. A copy of the return, inventory and appraisement, and account of the sale was transmitted to the Auditor of Accounts. If a person established a claim to the property within five years after the sale, they received the amount of money that the State gained from the sale minus expenses.5

In cases where land was escheated to the state, the Escheator was required to lease the land. If no claim was made on the lands within seven years, the Escheator sold the real estate at public auction. He certified the name of the purchaser to the governor, and the certificate was filed with the Secretary of State along with a receipt from the State Treasurer. The governor then granted a deed of the property to the purchaser. If a person established a claim to the land after the seven-year period, he received the amount of money that the state gained from the sale minus expenses.6

The duties, responsibilities, and functions of the three county Escheators remained constant until 1939 when their positions were abolished. In 1939 an Escheator of the State was created, who was also the State Tax Commissioner, and the administration and enforcement of escheat laws was made a responsibility of the State Tax Department (RG 1473) and the State Tax Commissioner.7 After the 1970 reorganization of state government, the Secretary of Finance or his delegate became the Escheator of the State.8

Currently, an inquisition is no longer used, but whenever the escheator learns of a person dying intestate and without heirs or known relatives, he files suit in the Court of Chancery to determine claims on the property. If the court finds that the conditions for escheat have been met, it issues an order that the decedent's property be escheated to the state.9

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ESCHEATOR

1 3 D.L., ch. 173

2. Ibid., 4 D.L., ch. 25

3 3 D.L., ch. 173

4 1831 Constitution, Art. VI; Section3. 1852 Rev. Code, ch. 82

5 3 D.L., ch. 173

6 Ibid.

7 42 D.L., ch. 57

8 57 D.L., ch. 741; 12 Del. Code, Section 1102

9 12 Del. Code, Section 1103 - 1104

rlg/April 26, 1988; January 4, 1989