Of missed emails and dead cousins

by Paul Holmes ([email protected]) 388 views 

I didn’t make the trip to the Sonoma County Courthouse in Santa Rosa, Calif., last month for the hearing on a bank’s petition to admit to probate the will of a recently deceased citizen.

There was no need, judging from the papers I received in the mail earlier in the month from Santa Rosa law firm Anderson Zeigler.

The documents, packed tightly into a legal-sized envelope secured with Scotch tape, informed me I was disinherited by my cousin once removed, none other than Roger B. Holmes of that fair city.

The old saying “Where there’s a will, there’s an anxious relative,” didn’t come into play because I was not aware Cousin Roger had passed away.

That’s due in large part to the fact that if I ever knew my father’s cousin Roger existed. I don’t remember ever meeting him or hearing him talked about around our immediate family’s campfire. Even a fairly lengthy look into the exhaustive genealogical book titled “As I Remember Them,” written by Dad’s cousin Irene in 1973, failed to enlighten me very much. Roger B. Holmes was the only child of one of my grandfather’s siblings, Francis Holmes, but beyond that, I have virtually no information on him. Neither my older nor my younger brother were any help, though they were listed as I was as cousins once removed and were mailed copies of the same thick wad of documents I received. There is a distinction between first cousins once removed and second cousins, but I confess I’ve not probed the nuances of kinsmanship in any depth at all to parse said nuances.

I would have learned sooner of Cousin Roger’s passing in May had I not zipped past an email sent to me in June from a paralegal at the law firm handling his estate. That email, had I read it back in June, would have informed me of Roger Holmes’ passing and that I would receive notice of hearing on the petition for admitting his will to probate and a copy of his will itself.

In order for the law firm to file a petition with the Superior Court in California, it was required to send notice of hearing to any living relatives of Roger Holmes. Hence, descendants of deceased first cousins were mailed such notices. Relatives provided a family tree and some of the addresses, but as of the June email Anderson Zeigler was still missing some information to compile the list and enlisted my help. I could name states of residences of some, but neither towns nor mailing addresses, so I wouldn’t have been much help had I opened the email in a timely fashion.

A month later, I received the documents including the list of those of us who weren’t going to receive anything from Roger B. Holmes’ estate. That indicated to me that between end of June and early July, the law firm had found mailing addresses of all of us living cousins.

Article V of Roger Holmes’ will, titled “Disinheritance” in bold-faced capital letters stated in part “… I have intentionally made no provision for any person or relative, whether claiming to be an heir of mine or not.” The documents indicated that he left behind no spouse, no registered domestic partner and no children.

The will directed that his $1.4 million estate be given to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the nearly 75-year-old entity founded in response to a 1947 U.S. Supreme Court decision that opened the door to allowing tax dollars to fund private, religious schools. Over the years the organization has opposed the teaching of “intelligent design,” and advocated for same-sex marriage, opposed a New York town opening its city council meetings with mostly Christian prayers and, among other activities, supported a law banning churches and other non-profits from intervening in partisan politics.

It would have been interesting to talk with Cousin Roger about all that and why he chose to give that organization his entire estate, but obviously, it’s too late now.

There are several things I’ve learned since this correspondence from California arrived in both my inbox and my (snail)mailbox. First, read all the correspondence that has any appearance of being legitimate. Next, if the email or snail mail needs your attention, give it promptly. I’m sure I buzzed past the email from the law firm because the sender line was an individual’s name I didn’t recognize. I must have thought it was someone trying to sell me an extended vehicle warranty or asking me to help them get their impounded millions out of a foreign country.

Little did I know I’d discover I had a cousin who lived in Peanuts creator Charles Schulz’s hometown – which incidentally, turns out some nice red wines. Maybe Cousin Roger would have offered me a glass if I’d known he was there when we passed though Santa Rosa in 2007.

The Internet is extremely efficient if you know, as Anderson Zeigler does, how to use it properly. The firm found all Cousin Roger’s potential heirs and their addresses.

However, I can’t imagine that such movie classics as “The Maltese Falcon” being made if the action consisted of watching private investigator Humphrey Bogart hunched over a computer poring through endless lists of names.

This whole experience taught me that in this day and age virtually anyone can be found, whether or not they have some money coming to them. Keeping a low profile is no longer as easy as unlisting your name from the phone book.

Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed are those of the author.