IMO the Estate of Zigfrids B. Blums, deceased
Submitted: September 24, 2014
ROW Folio No. 152154
Zigfrids B. Blums (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. This interesting case traces the journey of one family during the turbulent period of the 1920s-1950s in Latvia, and requires the Court to consider what constitutes sufficient evidence of ancestry when - as a result of wars and political upheaval - the official record is incomplete.
The Decedent's history largely is undisputed. The Decedent was born on April 25, 1926 in Riga, Latvia,  emigrated to this country in August 1951, and became a United States citizen in 1958. The Decedent was employed by Hercules Chemical Co. for 36 years. Although he was married, that marriage ended in divorce in 1963. The Decedent had no children and died in Hockessin, Delaware on September 15, 2011. Although friends occasionally implored him to make a will, the Decedent refused to do so, claiming he had no living relatives and that charity was a "scam."
One of the Decedent's close friends, J. Norman Cahill, was appointed administrator of the estate on November 16, 2011. Mr. Cahill first set about gathering the Decedent's assets, the total value of which exceeded $1.2 million. In connection with those efforts, Mr. Cahill initiated this action with a petition for instructions to permit him to sell the Decedent's real estate in order to preserve the assets while Mr. Cahill researched possible heirs. That petition was granted and the Decedent's property was sold.
Mr. Cahill then set about searching for heirs. He found no leads in the United States. Upon the suggestion of local genealogy experts, Mr. Cahill placed a death notice in a Latvian newspaper, but omitted any reference to the Decedent's estate or the search for heirs. The death notice provided that additional information about the Decedent was available through Mr. Cahill.
In July 2012, Mr. Cahill received a letter from Vija Putnina ("Vija") indicating that she and her mother had searched for the Decedent for many years after World War II, but had not been successful and believed for decades he was deceased. Vija's first letter sought information about the Decedent's life and his family. In a second letter dated August 23, 2012, Vija stated that her mother, Bronislava Putnina ("Bronislava"), was the Decedent's first cousin and that Vija was his goddaughter, and recounted a family history scarred by World War II and its aftermath. Specifically, Vija recalled that she was born in 1944, that she and Bronislava fled to Germany the same year, and that the family lost touch with the Decedent sometime in 1947 after he was called up for service in the Latvian SS Legion. Vija and Bronislava were repatriated from
Czechoslovakia to Latvia in 1951, after which Bronislava was arrested, convicted, and served 20 years in prison on charges that she was a capitalist. Vija indicated that the authorities confiscated family records and photos when Bronislava was arrested, and those records were not returned. In her August 2012 letter, Vija expressed regret that the Decedent had been unable to locate the family during his lifetime.
It was not until October 2012, after Vija became suspicious when Mr. Cahill asked her to obtain various family records in Latvia, that Mr. Cahill explained to Vija that he was searching for possible heirs to the Decedent's estate. A November 2012 letter from Vija provided additional family information but remained consistent with her earlier histories. Specifically, Vija explained – and official documents largely support – that the Decedent's grandparents, Maija and Aleksandrs Runcis, had two daughters, Milda Paberalis ("Milda") and Emilija Blums ("Emilija"). Emilija married Viktors Blums and they had one child, the Decedent. Milda married Antons Paberalis ("Antons") on October 4, 1918. Vija's letters stated that her mother, Bronislava, was the daughter of Milda and Antons, and that Bronislava married Janis Putnina in 1940. Vija explained that she and Bronislava came to live with Milda and Antons after Bronislava was deported from Czechoslovakia in 1951, and that Vija was raised by Milda and Antons after Bronislava was arrested in 1951. The bulk of this history is undisputed and Vija obtained confirmatory documentation for Mr. Cahill from Latvian archives. The only key document Vija was unable to obtain was Bronislava's birth certificate.
Before Vija's claim to the Decedent's estate was resolved to Mr. Cahill's satisfaction, a second possible heir was located. Max S. Blum, a German citizen, is the Decedent's first cousin on his paternal side. On June 6, 2014, Mr. Cahill filed a Petition for Decree of Distribution, asking the Court to determine the distribution of the Decedent's estate after hearing evidence presented by Mr. Cahill and Mr. Blum. I held an evidentiary hearing on June 30, 2014, at which time it became clear that there was no remaining dispute about Max Blum's claim to the Decedent's estate.  The only question in dispute at the hearing was whether the Max Blum is the sole heir, or whether half the estate should be distributed to Vija.
Mr. Blum contends he is the sole heir because Mr. Cahill has not established by a preponderance of the evidence that Bronislava was Milda's daughter. Mr. Blum argues, not without support, that Bronislava is the daughter of Antons and his other wife, Viktorija, who he married a year after he married Milda. It appears from the records that Antons was married to two women simultaneously.  In baptism records, Antons represented to the church that Bronislava was his daughter with Viktorija. Although that record was certified in 1928, it is not clear when the baptism occurred or when it was recorded. Antons made similar representations in passport and citizenship applications in 1933, 11 years after Bronislava's birth. It is undisputed that Bronislava's birth certificate has not and cannot be located, despite a diligent search by both claimants.
Of course, if Bronislava was not Milda's daughter, then Bronislava - and by extension, Vija - are not related to the Decedent. Vija, however, offered her own history to fill in the gap created by the absence of Bronislava's birth certificate and to counter Mr. Blum's contentions. In letters to Mr. Cahill, Vija recounted that she lived with Milda and Antons from 1951 until Anton's death in 1958, and that she continued to live with Milda after Antons' death. During Vija's youth, Milda told her that she gave birth to a daughter in 1919, who died as an infant, and gave birth to a second daughter, Bronislava, in 1922. According to Milda's stories, retold by Vija, Antons wanted to call their daughter Bronislava, but Milda wanted to call her Brigita, so she was named Bronislava but called Brigita "in everyday life." Milda, Antons, Bronislava, and presumably Viktorija, are deceased. Mr. Cahill also introduced the affidavit of Irisa Henele, of Riga, Latvia, who attested that she knows Vija and knew both Bronislava and Milda, having grown up in the same town and having attended school with Vija (the "Henele Affidavit"). Ms. Henele's sworn affidavit identifies Milda as Vija's grandmother.The Henele Affidavit states that Ms. Henele's family was very close with Vija's family and that "everything is known about both families up till [sic] the fifth generation." Ms. Henele explained that her grandparents originated from the same parish as Milda's parents, that Ms. Henele's mother made dresses for Bronislava, and that ...