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This isn't as rare as you might think. My mother inherited a very small amount of money from a deceased relative in England. I still don't really know how that person was related to us or why she didn't leave a will, but I do know that an awful lot of time, effort, and money was spent tracking down relatives in other countries.
Perhaps a person with no living relatives isn't really sure what to do about his or her estate, and can't really think of why they'd want to make a will. Some may even be under the impression that the government will automatically claim the estate, though this won't happen unless extensive searching reveals that absolutely no relatives at all can be found.
An excellent idea for those who don't have to worry about looking after a spouse or children is to think of a charity, university, or non-profit group that would be thrilled to receive a financial boost. A teacher might want to set up a scholarship for deserving students. An animal-lover might want to donate to shelters. Someone who lost a loved one to a particular disease might want to contribute to research to help combat that disease. On a local level, there are women's shelters, libraries, museums, food banks, children's hospitals, addictions centres, and many other worthy places. In addition, there are numerous groups who help across the globe to relieve poverty and suffering.
A client of mine whose estate is in the multi-millions of dollars decided to leave a huge amount of money to public libraries and children's literacy programs. He based his decision on the fact that he hadn't learned to read properly when he was young, and felt that had been a severe disadvantage during his lifetime. Charitable gifts such as this one can be very personal thank-yous.
For ideas about groups or causes, check out the Canadian Donor's Guide.
Alternatively, a person with no relatives may wish to leave some of all of his or her estate to a close friend whose own later years could be made more comfortable by some additional cash.
If you want a charity or friend to receive a gift, it's essential to make a will. No money will go where you want it to go if there isn't a will. It's definitely worth a conversation with an estate-planning lawyer to decide what to do with your estate when there is no obvious beneficiary. You could end up doing something that makes you feel wonderful about your contribution to others, and you could avoid a search like the one going on for Lizzie Ryan's family.