If you have an email account, chances are you have received an email from a purported Nigerian prince or bank officer who offers you a slice of a large bank account that has been “abandoned.” While such emails are most probably scams, abandoned accounts do exist, and there are ways for a legitimate heir to recover it legally through a probate or estate planning lawyer. It happens more often than people realize.

Many people fail to make provisions for what happens to their bank accounts when they die. This is especially true for people who have no expectations of dying in the near future i.e. car accident fatality, but even those who have the forethought to plan their estate neglect to appoint a beneficiary or leave other instructions regarding their active bank accounts. This can be a problem for the estate administrator or executor because the bank accounts will have to go through the probate process. It may also be an issue when it comes to distributing the funds.

There are many factors that come into play depending on what kind of bank account is in question. The simplest matter would be when the account is jointly held and at least one of the account holders is still alive. Upon presentation of the death certificate, the living account holder can have the name of the deceased removed and get full access to the funds. If the account is “held in trust for” a named person, that person can also get the funds upon presentation of the account holder’s death certificate.

In Illinois as in most states, if the account holder died intestate, the court will compile a list of people who are eligible to manage the estate from which the heirs choose one, and that person will be allowed access to bank accounts to pay for “last expenses” such as the costs of a funeral and burial. The remaining will be subject to probate and distributed according to state intestacy laws. Chicago estate planning lawyers will know what is due to legitimate heirs, so it would be wise to retain one if only to protect your rights.