NEW YORK CITY — Does your family lore include a long-lost cousin who played violin for the New York Philharmonic and toured Europe with Glenn Miller?
At family reunions, does a little-known dead uncle who worked for Louis Armstrong come up?
How about a distant relative who survived the Holocaust to live a quiet life in the East Village making handbags?
If yes to any of them, then you may have a shot at shaking some green out of your family tree.
All three of these individuals died with lots of money, but with no wills and no known relatives or heirs.
As a result, their life savings and liquidated properties are destined to collect dust in deposit accounts that the city Finance Department oversees. Their money will join hundreds of other accounts — worth tens of millions of dollars — that go untouched, waiting for a relative to step forward and make a claim.
All a relative has to do is prove kinship to a decedent.
One reason to start combing over your genealogy is Eugene Bergen, who played violin with the philharmonic from 1962 to 1986.
The Hell’s Kitchen resident died at 96 with nearly $4 million, but never married and didn’t have children. City officials have so far been unable to find any living relatives.
“He never spent a nickel. That’s the reputation he had,” said Johnny Schaeffer, a former personnel manager at the philharmonic who worked with Bergen.
Bergen was born in Brooklyn but grew up in Cleveland where he learned to play music from his father and later from famed violinist and Juilliard School of Music Professor Joseph Fuchs.
During World War II, as a member of the armed forces, Bergen toured England, France and Germany with swing-era composer Glen Miller’s band. He also played piano for RKO Pictures in Hollywood.
A biography in a 1986 philharmonic Stagebill said his hobbies were reading and writing.
He also owned a violin that famed Italian craftsman Nicolo Gagliano made in 1761. One of Gagliano’s violins from that year sold for nearly $150,000 at a Christie’s auction in 2012.
Schaeffer described Bergen as “an awfully nice person” but a “real loner” who didn’t socialize with his fellow musicians when the company would tour the country.
When Bergen died in 2013, the office of the Manhattan Public Administrator took control of his estate.
Each borough in the city — and each county in the state — has a public administrator who marshals the estates of decedents who don’t have wills and no known relatives.
With the help of private law firms acting as their counsel, public administrators track down and liquidate a decedent’s assets, and look for possible relatives through genealogical searches. A relative must be a cousin once removed or closer to collect the money from the estate.
A potential relative can also come forward and file court papers attesting to the relationship. The relative will also have to prove the connection to the public administrator and a judge.
If no relatives are found, a public administrator will recommend to a surrogate’s court judge that the estate’s assets be placed in a deposit account with the city Finance Department. A judge must approve the recommendation before the money is deposited.
The Finance Department said that between Jan. 1, 2012, and July 31, 2015, it received a total of $66.2 million in unclaimed fund deposits from the five city public administrators.
If no one successfully stakes a claim to a deposit account within three years, the Finance Department sends the money to the state comptroller’s office. The money sits there in unclaimed fund accounts until someone can prove a qualifying relationship to the decedent. The comptroller has a site where people can search for relatives' money.
Estate-planning lawyer William J. Russo isn't surprised people leave this world without making a will or setting up trusts or other accounts that transfer to another person upon death.
He said that, even though estate planning avoids a lot of headaches later on, people don't want to spend money on it or don't consider it necessary because the value of their estate is below the threshold for paying death taxes.
He also said that some people just want to ignore the Grim Reaper as much as possible.
"We all think that death is something that happens to someone else," he said. "This is an over-simplification of the 'whistling past the graveyard' philosophy, but there is a core of truth to it."
Last month, the Manhattan public administrator’s office filed papers in Manhattan Surrogate’s Court that said Bergen died with $3.81 million. He also had a $200 violin. (Apparently, he didn’t own his Gagliano violin at the time of his death.)
Before making a decision, a judge will appoint a lawyer to serve as a guardian for any unknown relatives. That guardian will also conduct a genealogical search and examine the public administrator’s records in the case.
If the guardian concurs with the public administrator, then the judge will likely approve the deposit to the Finance Department.
That’s also what is happening with the estate of Samuel Lichtenberg.
The Stuyvesant Town resident died at 86 in 2012 with more than $600,000. Born in Lodtz, Poland, Lichtenberg survived the Holocaust and then immigrated to the United States. He became a handbag maker, but never married or had children.
Last month a lawyer acting as a guardian for unknown heirs in the estate concurred with the public administrator that no relatives have been found and his money should be deposited with the Finance Department.
Sometimes the public administrator identifies possible relatives but doesn’t get a response from them.
The Manhattan public administrator’s counsel has been trying to serve notice to Charanne Jackson of Indianapolis, Ind. She may have a stake in money that belonged to Hazes Pugh, the personal valet of jazz great Louis Armstrong.
Pugh died without a will or any known children at 53 in 1967. But his wife, Ruth Pugh, died in 2012.
After her death, the public administrator learned that Hazes and Ruth each owned a one-half interest in a Sugar Hill cooperative apartment. After the apartment was sold, Hazes’ estate had $177,843.
So far the only possible relative that the public administrator has found for Hazes is Jackson, an alleged first cousin once removed of Ruth.
However, counsel for the public administrator said in a recent filing that Jackson has so far not responded to a notice about the proceeding.
If she does respond, she’ll likely have to attend a kinship hearing, where lawyers for the public administrator grill her about her family tree.