No. 10: Homeless Man Gets Massive Inheritance

A private investigator tracks down a homeless man and tells him a long-lost relative has left him a small fortune.

If this were a movie, you’d roll your eyes at the far-fetched plot. But Max Melitzer’s story is no Hollywood fantasy. The Utah man was literally pushing a grocery cart filled with his possessions in June when private investigator David Lundberg found him in a Salt Lake City park.

Tragedy to transience
Details quickly emerged: Melitzer was the only survivor of a car crash that killed his wife and two other people in 1990. Before the accident, “he had an apartment, and he had a wife and a life,” his friend Karol Behling told the Deseret News. “I don’t think he had a place to live after that. I think that’s probably when he started the transience.”

Melitzer bounced around the Salt Lake area for years, often staying in shelters and occasionally doing odd jobs. That is, until Lundberg found him.

The private investigator told Melitzer that his brother, Morris Melitzer of Schenectady, New York, had died in 2010. Morris, a veteran and a longtime General Electric employee, left Max an estate estimated to be worth $100,000.

In shock
Although Melitzer “ate his first seafood in over 25 years when Mr. Lundberg took him out for dinner,” as his cousin Richard Goldfarb told the Daily Mail, he was “in shock” after receiving the news. “This came out of nowhere,” Lundberg told the Associated Press. “He’s a really mellow guy in his 60s, very sweet and more articulate than I thought for a man in his position.”

Of course, it takes more than a shrimp cocktail to help someone adjust to such a dramatic life development. While media outlets seized on the story’s Cinderella angle, some bloggers pointed out that the mental and emotional issues that landed Melitzer on the streets wouldn’t be fixed by receiving a check.

And sure enough, the story has a cryptic ending. After taking a Greyhound bus from Salt Lake City to Albany (arriving nine hours late thanks to mechanical issues), Melitzer told his cousin that two lawyers were “trying to scam him out of two-thirds of his money,” the Daily reported. Melitzer has declined to give interviews until the legal issues are worked out.

Several of his friends in Utah said they haven’t been in touch with him since news of the inheritance broke. Lecia Beckstrom knew Melitzer from the time he spent at her family’s business, Beckstrom Body Shop in Ogden, Utah.

“We haven’t heard a word from him,” she said. “No phone call, no nothing. … I wish he would stop by so we’d know what happened to him.”

Jason Florez, leader of the homeless ministry at the Mountain View Christian Assembly of God in Sandy, hasn’t seen Melitzer since a meeting with him and Lundberg, the private investigator.

“He said he was going to come back shortly,” Florez said. “I just thought he’d want to come back, because it’s familiar and to see his friends, but he never came back. He’s probably back to being elusive, just in an another town.”

Lundberg did not return messages seeking comment.

Preparing for the windfall
If Melitzer’s story has you daydreaming about receiving such a windfall, you should double-check that family members have your current phone number. In New York, where Morris Melitzer lived, an estate’s administrator — often a family member or a trusted friend — is charged with locating heirs. If an heir can’t be found, his or her inheritance can be ordered held by the court or state controller. Furthermore, if there is no will and and the deceased has no close relatives, the state becomes the heir.

“You don’t want your estate plan dictated by circumstance,” said Richard A. Fuerst, an attorney in the Schenectady area. “It’s important that everyone sit down with a lawyer and think about how they want their assets distributed.”

Fuerst, a partner with Schenectady law firm Higgins, Roberts, Beyerl & Coan, stresses the importance of having an up-to-date will or will substitute, a power of attorney, and a health care proxy. “Those three documents are very, very important,” he said. “If you don’t have a will and you pass away with property that’s just in your name, New York will impose a will upon you and tell you who’s going to receive your property.”

And if you’re considering leaving all or part of your estate to someone whose mental or physical health makes him or her subject to predators or unable to manage an inheritance, consider setting up a trust. Just make sure the trust is properly drafted and controlled by someone who would be prudent with the funds and sympathetic to the beneficiary’s needs.

“Think about the way you want to pass your wealth,” Fuerst said, “and plan accordingly while you’re alive.”

Photo: Weber County Sheriff’s Office/AP,
David Lundberg/AP

Caroline Que is the D.C. editor for Yahoo! Local. Before joining Yahoo!, she worked at the Washington Post.