Estates of Deceased U.S. Citizens
The authority and responsibilities of a U.S. consular officer concerning the personal estate of a citizen who dies abroad or who resided abroad at the time of death are based on U.S. laws, treaties, and international practice, subject to local (foreign) law. (22 C.F.R. 72.16-72.55; 22 U.S.C. 4195-4197).
Notification of Next of Kin: When a U.S. citizen dies abroad, and no legal representative is present in the country at the time of death, the consular officer usually notifies the decedent's next of kin, often with the assistance of the Department of State in Washington, D.C. On the basis of instructions received from the legal representative or other qualified party, the consular officer arranges for the disposition of the remains.
Provisional Conservator of the Estate: The consular officer also acts as provisional conservator of the decedent's personal effects, after receiving them from police officials, hospital authorities, tour managers, or other persons who have had temporary custody of the effects.
The consular officer usually takes physical possession of convertible assets, luggage, wearing apparel, jewelry, articles of sentimental value, non-negotiable instruments, personal documents, and other miscellaneous effects. The consular officer has no authority to withdraw funds from bank accounts in foreign countries or to obtain the face value of traveler's checks.
If the personal effects are not located within a reasonable distance from the Foreign Service post, the consular officer will request the temporary custodian of the effects to send them to the post at the expense of the estate or of the legal representative. The U.S. Government has no independent authority to pay for any expenses incurred relating to the effects of a deceased private citizen.
Large, bulky articles found in residences are seldom taken into actual possession by the consular officer. However, reasonable steps are taken to ensure that the effects are adequately safeguarded until arrangements for disposition can be made by the legal representative.
The responsibilities of a consular officer as provisional conservator include taking possession of, inventorying and appraising personal effects, paying local debts such as hospital and hotel bills from funds available in the estate or from funds received from the legal representative, and delivering effects to the person entitled to receive them.
A legal representative, as relates to the personal estate of a deceased person, may be:
(1) An executor appointed in testate proceedings;
(2) An administrator appointed in intestate proceedings;
(3) An agent of the executor or administrator, qualifying by power of attorney;
(4) A surviving spouse;
(5) A child of legal age;
(6) A parent;
(7) A sibling; or
(8) Next of kin.
Entitlement to Receive Personal Estate: The consular officer does not establish the ownership of nor entitlement to the personal estate of the person(s) who will receive it in the absence of presentation of proof of entitlement by the potential legal claimant. Depending on the value of the estate and whether there is a disagreement among claimants, the consular officer may require that a document issued under the seal and signature of a court official be submitted to establish a claimant's proof of entitlement to receive the effects. Satisfactory proof may take the form of "Letters Testamentary", which are generally issued by a U.S. court when a person has left a valid will, or "Letters of Administration", which are issued by a U.S. court when a person dies without a will or leaves no valid will. In most cases, when the monetary value of the personal estate is small, an affidavit of surviving spouse or next of kin, is sufficient to effect the release of the personal estate.
Shipment of Personal Effects: After the personal effects have been inventoried and documentary proof of entitlement has been furnished, the consular officer requests instructions from the claimant regarding shipment of the effects. Because of the high costs of shipment, many persons instruct the consular officer to ship only items of commercial and sentimental value and to donate the remaining effects to a local charity or to dispose of them in another manner. In some instances a forwarding company in the foreign country must be selected by a legal claimant to ship the effects to a designated address. It is the responsibility of the forwarding company to obtain the necessary customs clearance from the country of departure. Additional customs clearance required by the United States at the port of entry is the responsibility of the person receiving the effects.
Questions: For additional information, you may contact the Office of American Citizens Services at (202) 647-5225 or 5226; fax: 202-647-2835.
Familiarize yourself with local conditions and laws: While in a foreign country, you are subject to its laws. Check out our country-specific safety and travel information about the places you will visit.