A quiet, unassuming spinster dies, and her death might have gone completely unnoticed if not for one thing — she left behind more than $1 million.
Now, people in Bulgaria are staking claim on the money, while at home, a long-lost heir may have been found.
No, this isn’t the plot to an Agatha Christie mystery or a screwball ’60s comedy … it is true, and it is happening right here in Madison County.
“These ladies were smart with their money,” Madison County Treasurer Kurt Prenzler said. “No one bamboozled them. But with no husband and no children, what Mary leaves behind is a situation.”
Mary Petroff’s story
Mary Petroff was born July 23, 1914, to immigrant parents who had arrived in the United States from Bulgaria two years earlier.
Like thousands of other Bulgarian immigrants, Atanas and Neda settled in Madison County, excited about the prospect of raising Mary and her younger sister, Anne, in a country offering more opportunities than home. Atanas worked as a laborer in Granite City, and the girls grew up in Granite City and Collinsville.
As Mary and Anne grew into adulthood, they did not marry, nor did they have any children. What they did do was prove that a woman (who in the 1930s and ’40s was often expected to stay quiet, barefoot, and pregnant) could cross barriers set by men and succeed in their goals.
“(Mary and Anne’s) investments are a classic illustration of buying stock for the long-term,” Madison County Treasurer Kurt Prenzler said. “The sisters owned stock in Pfizer, Ford Motor Co., and Anadarko Petroleum Co., to name a few. They also owned bonds, money market accounts and CDs.”
While amassing a fortune, the sisters never compromised the respect for hard work with which they were raised. Both held clerical jobs, earning a modest paycheck as their stocks grew and grew.
In their later years, senility and dementia set in. Anne died in 2009, and her entire estate passed on to Mary, her only living relative. Two years later, on Sept. 5, 2011, Mary passed away … leaving behind a $1.3 million estate.
A court-appointed administrator and attorney then searched for living relatives, including back in Bulgaria, but none were found.
“In such cases, Illinois law provides that the estate ‘escheats,’” Prenzler said. “This means that if after 10 years no relatives appear, the money is considered unclaimed property and is turned over to the state.”
Now it gets sticky. The Treasurer’s Office currently holds the monies to Petroff’s estate. As word of the mysterious maiden’s fortune spread, interest grew, and last month a group of more than 30 people (all but one from Bulgaria) filed a petition seeking to gain the money. The story even made the Bulgarian newspapers.
Meanwhile, Rebecca Karras of O’Fallon, Ill., was at home watching television when a news report on the story appeared. Knowing right away she was a descendent of Petroff, she contacted Prenzler’s office.
“Her father and my grandfather were brothers,” Karras said. “They came to the United States together. My mother was named for both Mary and Anne.”
Karras’ documentation shows the paternal lineage between her grandfather, Petko Petroff, and Antanas. Petko had four children, three of whom have died, and Karras is in the process of contacting her aunt regarding the developments.
Petko Petroff died in a mine explosion on Dec. 21, 1951, and was buried on Christmas.
“I still have the toys he was planning to wrap that night,” Karras said.
Karras has obtained an attorney and is validating documentation and confirming lineage. It now falls on Karras to prove her lineage before the issue of Petroff’s estate can be resolved.
How to prevent a similar situation
So what can one do to be proactive and ensure their intentions are carried out?
“The two biggest barriers when it comes to preparation are procrastination and the fact that people just do not want to think about death,” Prenzler said. “Quit thinking, ‘I’ll do it tomorrow,’ and just force yourself to go ahead and do it.”
Some tasks are obvious, such as creating a will and a living trust. Other things to be marked off the checklist include talking to your banker regarding your vehicles and accounts, setting up medical care, and talking to parents about their estates.
“We know our parents, and we know it can sometimes be hard to approach them about a subject like this,” Prenzler said. “You want to do all you can to avoid probate.”
Otherwise, when you die you could be “dying intestate,” where the government gets to presume what your intentions would have been with your money.
“I’m sure that Mary’s intentions were never to leave her money to the government,” Prenzler said.
The Treasurer’s Office currently has eight cases of unclaimed estate funds on record.
Today, Mary Petroff is resting peacefully beside her sister and parents in St. John’s Cemetery in Granite City, unaware of the drama her death has created.
Or the fact that, in death anyway, she has become a kind of celebrity.