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Cook County lawyer protects estates

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

by Jerry Crimmins

Cook County has a public official rarely heard about who protects the estates of people who die without wills or whose designated executors cannot serve.

Cook County Public Administrator Nicholas G. Grapsas makes millions of dollars for the county through fees he collects for the office's work and money from estates in which no heirs can be found.

The irony is that Grapsas was involved in a dispute over his inheritance when he was a teenager, said his longtime friend, attorney Michael R. Orlando said.

"It affected him, and now he's helping other people," Orlando said.

Grapsas, 51, was 14 when his father died and 17 when his mother died.

"My relatives depleted my mother's estate bank accounts," he said.

He said he hired a lawyer and got some of the money back. Later, another relative took most of the money while he attended college.

He worked his way through the remainder of college and law school and got his law degree in 1988.

Grapsas has been a lawyer in private practice for 15 years. He was an assistant Cook County state's attorney for eight years.

His story contains a few other ironies and twists. He is appointed by the governor, but has a county title.

He is a Republican, but he was originally appointed in 2008 by former Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, a Democrat.

Yet this particular Blagojevich appointee "is an honest guy," said Cook County Commissioner Lawrence J. Suffredin Jr.

"He has managed his staff and streamlined the office to produce a higher quality of service and more service," Suffredin said.

Grapsas does "a fine job of representing the interests of unknown heirs," said Circuit Judge Mary Ellen Coghlan, the presiding judge of the Probate Division.

She said judges in the Probate Division "are very satisfied."

For this part-time job of 20 hours a week, Grapsas said he is paid $56,000 a year. The rest of his hours are devoted to his criminal and civil practice in Inverness.

As public administrator of dozens of deceased people's estates every year, Grapsas said, "I don't allow anyone to counsel me. I realize the only way you can succeed at this job, given what you're administering and what you're protecting, is not to care whether I keep the job and get reappointed."

He was reappointed by Gov. Patrick J. Quinn in 2009. He will be up for reappointment in 2013.

The way the office works, he said, is his staff of 18 hears from police, nursing homes, hospitals, neighbors and the morgue that somebody died — potentially without heirs or a will.

"Before anyone helps himself to all the loot, my investigators go out and see what's there," Grapsas said. "If there's anything of value, my investigator confiscates it and we lock it up."

Cars get towed and other things such as furniture are photographed and documented.

"I also have two inside investigators," he said, "who just work the computers and find out what they owned," such as stocks, bonds and real estate.

If his office accepts the case, it liquidates all the deceased's property through direct sales and through auctions. Then the office determines where the money should legally go, for instance to heirs, creditors and to taxes owed by the deceased.

If the office finds somebody else who should take over the estate, such as a family member, it turns the estate over to that person.

Otherwise, the office prepares a final account of the estate, including fees owed to the public administrator for their work, to the court for approval, Grapsas said.

The office opened 916 investigations of this sort in 2012, he said. Out of those, 66 estates "fell within my statutory mandate."

Grapsas said in 2011, his budget was $1.2 million and he turned over to the county about $9.4 million.

Suffredin said the $9 million-plus "is about what it cost us" to save the jobs of 80 people in the offices of the state's attorney and public defender and some other county positions.

Before he took this job, Grapsas said the office typically turned over $3 million to $5 million a year to the county. Suffredin said the dollar amounts are accurate, but the office's income fluctuates.

Patrick Nester, chief financial officer for the county treasurer, said the treasurer keeps money for "known heirs" who can't be found for seven years. If not claimed, it is turned over to the state.

The treasurer always keeps at least $5 million in a special account for "unknown heirs" should some of them ever appear and make a valid claim.

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