Quick read

10 things to do if you are contacted by an heir hunter

Gateley Legal's logo Gateley Legal

Article by

Recently my mother was approached by a firm of probate genealogists who informed her that a distant relative had died without making a will.

Being contacted out of the blue about a long-lost relative who has left you a fortune rarely happens but programmes like BBC’s ‘Heir Hunters’ show how this dream can become real.

First things first – are they genuine?

I checked their website, made contact with the researcher dealing with my mother’s case, asked him lots of questions (although he was a bit evasive) and checked their business address. I also checked the firm was on the Data Protection Register here. Interestingly, a firm of probate administrators shared the same registration number. I checked and found out that they were a division of the probate genealogists who had contacted my mother. They employ qualified solicitors to provide administration services for intestate estates.

The researcher wouldn’t give us too much information, just dropping the names of certain relatives who we were likely to recognise here and there to stoke up interest. He even gave us the name of a distant relative we had never heard of, identifying her as the link to the unclaimed estate. But he wouldn’t go as far as to give us the name of the deceased.

An up-to-date list of all unclaimed estates in England and Wales since 1997 is published every week. To go back any further you need to look at paper records. Heir hunters trawl through this list of names, build a family tree and start tracing relatives. If you have enough information you can do your own research and make a claim directly to the Treasury Solicitor or the administrator of the estate and cut the heir hunters out of the loop.

So why do they do it?

The heir hunters charge a fee for their services, usually based on a percentage of the amount to be distributed to the beneficiary, plus VAT. My mother was asked to agree a fee of 25% of her inheritance plus VAT and was told by the firm that this was “roughly industry standard”.

On carrying out some research of our own it appears percentage fees for heir hunters can range between 15% and 40%. The problem is that when you are asked to sign an agreement by an heir hunter you don’t know what the estate is actually worth. If you are contacted out of the blue not expecting anything you may be agreeable to signing a contract agreeing to a 25% fee plus VAT, or even in one case I read about a 40% fee plus VAT. However, a 25% fee plus VAT on an estate worth £250,000 equates to £75,000. A 25% fee plus VAT in an estate worth £1m equates to £300,000. These sort of fees seem completely disproportionate to the work likely to be involved in tracing beneficiaries and obtaining birth, marriage and death certificates to support a claim.

In my mother’s case the heir hunter would not reveal how much the estate is worth, simply saying “it’s not worth a lot”. This does seem to be backed up by the fact that to date, no other heir hunters have contacted my mother about this estate. If it was a sizeable estate I expect other heir hunters would be on the trail by now, competing to get her signed up.

An alternative view

The other way of looking at this is that if this firm hadn’t contacted my mother she would be unaware of her inheritance and 75% of something is better than 100% of nothing. We have reviewed all of the names on the unclaimed estates list and cross-referenced the names on the list with the names of all of our relatives that we are aware of. We don’t recognise anyone. Tracking down a long-lost relative and claiming an unclaimed estate may not be easy. Over time, names change and relatives become more distant. The heir hunters work backwards, starting with the deceased, tracing the family tree back and identifying beneficiaries. It can be much harder, even impossible, to look through a list of thousands of names and identify who your long-lost relative is.

In my mother’s case, in the face of the heir hunters’ evasiveness, we tried to negotiate a lower percentage fee with the firm. Remember I also mentioned earlier that I checked the Data Protection Register and the probate genealogists also had a division dealing with the administration of intestate estates? We also told them that we would deal with the administration ourselves. They have ignored us since. 

This has left me thinking that the real value of the estate in my mother’s case as far as these heir hunters are concerned is the additional fees they could have paid themselves first out of the estate for dealing with the administration.

The problem with these heir hunters is that this is an unregulated market. Although organisations exist such as The Federation of Probate and Asset Researchers (FPAR) and The Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (AGRA) these organisations do not have a proper regulatory function.

So what should you do if you are contacted by an heir hunter out of the blue?

  1. Check they are genuine.
  2. Ask lots of questions. How much is the estate worth? How many beneficiaries are there?
  3. Discuss the proposed fee. On what basis are they going to charge you? If it’s on a percentage basis, how much will the fee be in pounds? If it’s a fixed fee or a time-based fee you need to know that the fee will not exceed the amount of any inheritance. Is the fee negotiable? Will they agree a capped fee?
  4. Be wary of anyone who asks you to sign a percentage fee agreement who is not prepared to provide you with the above information first.
  5. Check the unclaimed estates list. Do any names on the list ring any bells? Look through your family tree at all the different surnames. Can you research and document your own claim and make a direct claim yourself?
  6. Take your time. You have 12 years before the estate goes to the Treasury, becoming Crown property. However, it may be possible to claim some part of the estate for up to 30 years.
  7. Be realistic. You may be one of many beneficiaries who are all entitled to a share.
  8. Be sensible. You could receive a larger inheritance than you are due because other beneficiaries haven’t been traced. Consider taking out “missing beneficiary indemnity insurance” to protect yourself.
  9. If you are concerned about the terms of the contract you have been asked to sign take legal advice.
  10. Report any concerns about the heir hunter to your local trading standards office. 

Gateley Plc is authorised and regulated by the SRA (Solicitors' Regulation Authority). Please visit the SRA website for details of the professional conduct rules which Gateley Legal must comply with.