The country's largest return of unclaimed property is in Illinois, valued at $11M

'This will be life-changing'

CHICAGO (CBS) -- It sounds like a plot pulled right from a movie: A long-lost relative dies with no will and no heirs, leaving behind millions of dollars.

That's exactly what happened in Chicago and the search is over for who gets the money. CBS 2' Marybel Gonzalez reports from Gage Park where Joseph Stancak lived.

It took years to track down Stancak's relatives, many of whom live abroad. But none of them, not even his neighbors in Gage Park, knew the 87-year-old man had millions stashed away.

"We know very little. We know he passed away before Christmas in 2016. We know that he had over $11 million."

Illinois State Treasurer Michael Frerichs said his office returned the millions to the family of Joseph Stancak, a Gage Park resident who died without leaving a will.

"This is the largest unclaimed property return in Illinois history and national history," Frerichs said.

Family was not easy to find and no one mentioned in his will. Stancak didn't have any kids of his own. Neither did six of his now deceased siblings. 

So the ancestry research had to go back to his parents and grandparents on a family tree before finding the heirs.

"We're talking first cousins and, I believe in some cases, second cousins."

Attorney Kenneth Piercey, who represents Stancak's estate, worked with a research company to track down family and found 119 heirs.

The majority live in Poland and nearby Slovakia. They also found a few in the United States, including New York, New Jersey, Minnesota and seven in the Chicago area.

"We had to find, basically, the baptismal records, birth certificates, death certificates, marriage records; everything that we could find," Piercey said. "The family had no idea and I think this will be life-changing for many of them."

And while that part is solved, less is known about how Stancak made his fortune. His neighbors in the working class neighborhood of Gage Park said he was a quiet and frugal man, often times doing his own home repairs in the house is where they say he lived alone and died the same way.

Even though it's the largest sum of unclaimed property, it's not the only one. The state treasurer said one in four people in Illinois have funds entitled to them they probably don't even know exist.

Click here to visit the State of Illinois Treasurer's site.

There's little known about how Stancak became wealthy, but he did own a boat named "Easy."

"This is a life-changing amount of money," Frerichs said. "I only wish we knew more about Mr. Stancak."

Frerich's said unclaimed property is money or accounts within financial institutions or companies where there's been no activity for several years. Some of that includes forgotten bank accounts, unpaid life insurance benefits, things left in safe deposit boxes and other items. 

"Returning unclaimed property is a core function of the Illinois State Treasurer's Office, no matter how long it takes," according to Frerich's office. 

What is known is that Stancak was born in Chicago in August of 1929. He last lived in a house on South Troy Street. He was found in that home on December 23, 2016. He was 87 years old.

Stancak's parents were born in Poland. They married at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Passaic, New Jersey, on November 27, 1909. They had seven children: Joseph, Mary, Paul, Anna, John, Helen and Frances. Only Anna and John married. Neither Joseph nor his siblings had children. Each passed away before Joseph.

Because Stancak and his siblings had no children, the Stancak estate had to ID family through his parents. That meant going up the family tree.

"It is unclear how Mr. Stancak accumulated such wealth. In 2019, a variety of investments began to be turned over to the treasurer's office as unclaimed property; such investments typically are surrendered if the owner has not had contact in three years and the investment firm is unable to locate the owner," according to Frerich's office.

Attorney Kenneth Piercey is a partner with Piercey & Associates in Barrington is the administrator of Mr. Stancak's estate. 
"It is a great privilege to be able to assist the heirs in collecting their rightful inheritance," Piercey said.

Prior to Stancak, the highest paid unclaimed property claim in Illinois was $8.1 million. That was to a suburban manufacturer of auto components in 2012. The largest claim paid to a person was $5 million in 2013 to a Cook County woman.

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