Granite City woman leaves behind $1.3 million — but no will (MO)

GRANITE CITY  What plans, if any, Mary Petroff had for her estate are unknown.

The woman from Granite City did not leave a will. But when she died in a nursing home three years ago, at the age of 97, she was worth $1.3 million.

Now, the search — if not the competition — is on for the rightful heirs. Claimants have stepped forward from as far away as Bulgaria.

They have seven years left to prove their relationship — or the money goes to the state of Illinois.

“I’ve never seen a case like it,” said Madison County Treasurer Kurt Prenzler, the official entrusted with the money’s safekeeping.

“When a lawyer walked into my office three years ago with that check, I thought, ‘Holy Cow!’”

Petroff was the daughter of Bulgarian immigrants who came to America in 1912.

The family moved to then-booming Granite City, whose steel and other factories attracted thousands of Eastern European immigrants a century ago.

Mary Petroff was born on July 23, 1914. A sister, Anne, was born four years later.

The Petroff sisters never married. They lived together in the small, brick home in Granite City where they grew up. Eventually, they entered a nursing home in Edwardsville.

They had worked as secretaries in St. Louis, lived frugally and amassed a small fortune.

Investments in Pfizer, Ford Motor Co., and petroleum companies, among other firms, had paid off handsomely.

They also owned bonds, money market accounts and certificates of deposit.

By the time the sisters reached their 90s, they were suffering from dementia and unable to plan their estates, Prenzler said.

Anne Petroff died in a nursing home in 2009. Her estate passed to her sister.

When Mary Petroff’s assets were liquidated, the total came to $1,364,121.77. After taxes and fees to court-appointed officials, the balance entrusted in the care of the county treasurer was $1,321,293.01.

A longtime acquaintance, Marvin Moehle, 56, of Granite City, recalled the sisters as kind and dignified.

Moehle is an amateur historian who teaches a class in Bulgarian and Macedonian immigrant history at Southwestern Illinois College. He occasionally dropped in on the Petroff sisters to gather information.

“They were nice, quiet and very religious,” Moehle said. “They were always well-dressed but their house was simply decorated and neat. The furniture was old and plain, but not threadbare. Certainly nothing luxurious.”

The sisters attended Mass at Holy Trinity Bulgarian Orthodox church in Madison, said to be the oldest of its denomination in the U.S.

Its pastor, the Rev. Ivan Malinov, presided at Mary Petroff’s funeral.

“Only one person attended, a woman who looked to be in her 60s,” said Malinov, who immigrated from Bulgaria eight years ago and never knew the sisters.

A court administrator’s initial search for surviving relatives proved futile.

But in August, the downtown St. Louis law firm of Anderson & Gilbert filed a petition in Madison County Circuit Court on behalf of 34 Bulgarian citizens who claim a share of the the money.

According to the suit, the plaintiffs include “maternal first cousins once removed, maternal first cousins twice removed, paternal first cousins twice removed and paternal first cousins thrice removed.”

Lawyers did not return calls for comment. But a story on the search for heirs recently made the front page of a newspaper in Sofia, Bulgaria.

At least one more claimant works in the Metro East area.

Rebecca Karras, a payroll administrator for the city of O’Fallon, Ill., said she is a first cousin once removed of Mary and Anne Petroff.

Karras declined further comment except to say that her mother, Mary Anne Karras, was a first cousin of the Petroff sisters and was named for them.

Illinois law gives heirs 10 years to come forward. “That means they have seven years left,” Prenzler said.

Then a judge will decide whose claims are legitimate and how the money should be divided. It remains unclear to people close to the case, however, whether a judge can rule on the matter before the full 10 years have passed.

In the meantime, the cash sits in an “unknown heirs fund” where it collects monthly interest at a rate of 0.05 percent.


Granite City woman leaves behind $1.3 million — but no will
Paul Hampel
October 6, 2014
St. Louis Post-Dispatch—-but/article_986ed703-922f-599e-80b9-c3fa18ce9e01.html