Master in Chancery Decides Interesting Case Involving Long-lost Latvian Heir

Delaware Fiduciary Litigation Blog

Posted November 13, 2014

IMO the Estate of Zigfrids B. Blums, deceased C.A. No 7479-ML (November 12, 2014)

The Decedent died without a will, leaving a substantial estate and no readily apparent heirs. Throughout his lifetime, the Decedent repeatedly told friends he had no living relatives. An extensive genealogy search by the administrator of the Decedent’s estate uncovered two possible heirs. The lineage of one of those possible heirs is in dispute. In this case, the Court had to review the family history of Decedent through the turbulent period of the 1920s-1950s in Latvia and determine whether the Decedent did have heirs notwithstanding the absence of complete official foreign records.

The Decedent was born in Riga, Latvia in 1926 and emigrated to the United States in 1951. Although he married, he had no children, and his relatively short marriage ended in divorce. The Decedent died in Delaware in 2011, and his estate was valued in excess of $1.2 million. He never made a will.

The estate administrator set out to search for possible heirs. He took out a vague advertisement—which did not mention the possible inheritance—in a Latvian newspaper as part of the effort. A Latvian woman (“Vija”) responded to that advertisement. She provided some details and claimed that her mother was the Decedent’s first cousin. Vija reported that she was born in 1944, that she and her mother fled to Germany the same year, and that the family lost touch with the Decedent sometime after he was called up for service in the Latvian SS Legion. Later, when Vija and her mother returned to Latvia after the war, the Communist government charged her mother with being a capitalist and sentenced her to 20 years in prison. All the family’s records and photos were confiscated at the time of the arrest.

Eventually, the estate administrator revealed to Vija the purpose for his investigation. In response, Vija provided a more detailed family history, which was consistent with her earlier reports. The estate administrator was able to obtain some partial confirmation from existing Latvian archives. Importantly, the birth certificate for Vija’s mother was never located after a diligent search.

Before Vija’s claim to the Decedent’s estate was resolved to estate administrator’s satisfaction, a second possible heir was located. Max S. Blum (“Mr. Blum”), a German citizen, is the Decedent’s first cousin on his paternal side. On June 6, 2014, the estate administrator filed a Petition for Decree of Distribution, asking the Court to determine the distribution of the Decedent’s estate after hearing evidence presented by the estate administrator and Mr. Blum. The Court held an evidentiary hearing and was convinced that Mr. Blum was an heir. The only remaining question was whether Vija was also a heir.

Mr. Blum argued that the records did not accurately show that Vija was a blood relative of Decedent. In response, Vija offered an oral history of her mother’s family as it had been reported to her in her youth. She also offered an affidavit from a third party that tied her and her mother to the Decedent’s family. Mr. Blum’s counsel objected to this affidavit as inadmissible hearsay, but the Court admitted the affidavit into the record on the basis that it fell within Rule 803(19) of the Delaware Uniform Rules of Evidence, which establishes an exception to the hearsay rule for “[r]eputation concerning personal or family history.” The Court also indicated that the affidavit might fall within Delaware Unif. R. Evid. 803(23). But upon further reflection, however, the Court noted that that exception applies only to “judgments as to personal, family or general history, or boundaries,” and the affidavit is not a “judgment.” Cf. U.S. v. Boulware, 384 F.3d 794 (9th Cir. 2004) (stating that Fed. R. Evid. 803(23), which is analogous to Del. Unif. R. Evid. 803(23), applies to certain kinds of judicial judgments).

The Court issued a draft report dividing the estate equally between Mr. Blum and Vija. The Master reasoned “that although the absence of any birth certificate for [Vija’s mother] was unfortunate, that gap in the record likely was explained by the turbulent period that began in Latvia in approximately 1918 and continued through the Second World War and the control of Latvia by the Soviet Union. It is not altogether surprising, given those events, that births may not have been recorded in the usual manner, or that records may have been destroyed as various forces occupied the country.” The Court also identified other bases for why Vija’s recounting was trustworthy.

Mr. Blum filed a timely notice of exception and the parties briefed those exceptions. First, Mr. Blum argued that the affidavit from the third party should not have admitted. The Master rejected that contention and found that it was admissible under Delaware Rule of Evidence 803(19) (which reads in pertinent part, “The following are not excluded by the hearsay rule, even though the declarant is available as a witness:  (19) Reputation concerning personal or family history. Reputation among members of his family by blood, adoption or marriage, or among his associates or in the community, concerning a person’s birth, adoption, marriage, divorce, death, legitimacy, relationship by blood, adoption or marriage, ancestry or other similar fact of his personal or family history.”) In short, the Master found that the affidavit at issue provided sufficient detail regarding the declarant’s familiarity with the family that the statements fell within Rule 803(19).

The Court also rejected Mr. Blum’s contention that Vija’s evidence fell short of the required preponderance standard. After going through a litany of specific reasons as to why that was not the case, the Master also pointed out that “the fact that Vija’s statements regarding her relationship to the Decedent were made months before she became aware of any possible inheritance warrants considerable attention”

The Master entered a final report consistent with her draft report.


William M. Kelleher, Director
Gordon, Fournaris & Mammarella, P.A.