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Legacy in limbo - $500m inheritances tied up in understaffed bureaucracy

Published:Wednesday | September 24, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Edmond Campbell, Senior Staff Reporter

Nearly 3,000 properties, valuing approximately $500 million, are currently tied up in the Administrator General's Department as the government body struggles to clear a backlog of cases which, in some instances, date back to 70 years after persons died intestate.

Family members in line to benefit from these settlements may themselves have died in the decades-long wait for what was due to them.

The multigenerational estates languishing for decades in the department, with a current backlog of 2,200 cases, attracted much debate yesterday during a meeting of Parliament's Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

The committee was told yesterday that the Administrator General's Department has had a long history of dealing with a chronic backlog of estates, which was the subject of a commission of enquiry in 1960.

Administrator General Lona Brown told members of the PAC yesterday that the 1960 enquiry had insisted that there should be one officer to 50 estates to be administered. However, the committee discovered that 54 years later, the situation had worsened, with an officer in the government agency now handling up to 500 cases.

"The backlog was there for years. It's just not possible for one case officer to handle 300 files. The estates consist of businesses; the assets range from horses, to sole proprietorship, to limited liability companies, and it just not very easy," Brown stressed.

Giving details about the complexity of the administration of estates, Brown told the PAC that it involved taking care of households.

"Very often, the households are not nuclear families. You could have a deceased's estate and there are 15 children with different mothers," she pointed out.

In addition, it was revealed that four officers at the department had the task of manually posting and balancing more than 20,000 transactions each, in addition to carrying out other duties.

ARCHAIC SYSTEM

Committee member Edmund Bartlett described the current system as archaic as he enquired about plans to make the department more efficient.

Brown said a restructuring plan was already crafted and signed off by the department, but the actual implementation, which includes the recruitment of additional staff to deal with the workload, was now awaiting approval from the Ministry of Finance.

Officials from the finance ministry told committee chairman Audley Shaw that the costing of the new structure would be completed by the end of September.

Carol Palmer, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Justice, which has oversight responsibility for the Administrator General's Department, said she was awaiting the ministry's approval to prepare a Cabinet submission.

The committee was also advised that legislative amendments will be made to the Administrator General's Act to remove existing bureaucracies that make the process of administering estates more tedious.

edmond.campbell@gleanerjm.com