Mary Petroff was the daughter of immigrants, a woman who lived simply and died in Granite City without marrying or having children. But when she died, the state discovered she was a millionaire.
Petroff’s father was a laborer, who immigrated to Granite City with his wife in the early 1900s, where Mary and her sister, Anne, were born. The sisters lived a modest life, working menial and clerical jobs and living frugally, according to Cynthia Ellis, financial services manager with the county treasurer’s office.
Neither sister ever married or had children, and they lived quietly in Granite City. “They put their money into stocks and bonds,” Ellis said, and no one knew how their money had grown over the years.
“And nobody took advantage of them,” Ellis said. “They’re just lucky that nobody realized they had that kind of money.”
When the Petroff sisters reached their 90s, they began to suffer from dementia and eventually were placed in a nursing home with an appointed legal guardian. By the time their guardians realized they didn’t have a will, neither was in their right state of mind, Ellis said.
“Because they were suffering from dementia, they could not legally create a will,” she said.
Anne died in 2009, and her estate passed on to Mary. By the time Mary died in 2011, the Petroff estate was worth $1.36 million.
With no will and no known heirs, the money was held by the office of county treasurer Kurt Prenzler. Under Illinois law, unclaimed inheritances are kept in county coffers for 10 years before they become the property of the state, so for the last four years, county officials have been searching for the proper disposition of Petroff’s estate.
“This is what happens when there are no known relatives and a person dies without a will,” Prenzler said. “In Mary’s case, there were people who stepped forward claiming to be relatives, and the court determined last month their familial relationship.”
This is what happens when there are no known relatives and a person dies without a will. In Mary’s (Petroff) case, there were people who stepped forward claiming to be relatives, and the court determined last month their familial relationship.
Kurt Prenzler, Madison County treasurer
Three years after Mary’s death, a relative came forward, and Ellis set to digging through family documents and public records to find more of the Petroffs’ relatives. “For me, this was all about digging through the facts and pulling the story together,” said Ellis, a former journalist.
In another state, inheritance would have been limited to the closest known relative, Ellis said. Across the river in Missouri, the entire fortune would have gone to whichever relative was deemed the most closely related. But in Illinois, it is split up among anyone who can show relationship.
Attorney Michael Lawder represented most of the family members, the majority of which live in Bulgaria. Eventually the case came before Madison County courts and determined which claims were legitimate and how much each person should receive. In some cases, the inheriting relative might be a first cousin twice removed whose parents lost touch with the Petroffs a generation ago, and in at least one case, they only discovered the Petroffs had died via news coverage, Ellis said.
Last week, Prenzler’s office issued checks for 48 relatives stretching from Granite City to Bulgaria, ranging from $3,303 to $110,107. Ellis said they were mostly related through the Petroff sisters’ father. They had to prove their lineage, and many of the local relatives had to obtain paperwork from Bulgaria.
The case has been fascinating for Ellis and very unusual for the business of the treasurer’s office. There are other estates held in the county coffers when someone died without a will, Ellis said, but none the size of the Petroffs’ etstate.
“It’s history, and news, and why you should have a will before you die, because nobody wants to leave their money to the state,” Ellis said.