Heir hunting has become a popular and highly lucrative industry over the last couple of decades.
In theory, helping to locate heirs who may not realise that they are legally due to benefit from an estate sounds like a commendable thing to do. However, some companies have seen the commercial opportunity that this practice offers and have used legally dubious tactics to ensure that they take a significant share of people’s inheritance.
Heir hunters operate by identifying the estates of people that have died without making a Will. In these instances, their estate will legally pass to family members under the rules of intestacy. However, if the family is not particularly close or have lost contact with one another, they may not realise that they should legally inherit the estate. Heir hunters locate people that they believe could be a beneficiary of the estate and aim to convince them to appoint them, in return for a percentage of the estate’s value.
Title Research has campaigned for a number of years about what we see as an unfair practice that can result in members of the public being forced to sign over significant amounts of their inheritance, without having a clear understanding of the options available to them. We want to raise awareness of these practices so that members of the public can make informed decisions should they be contacted by an heir hunter.
What should I do if an heir hunter approaches me?
We recommend that you seek independent legal advice before signing any paperwork from an heir hunter. Call Title Research on 0345 87 27 600 if you would like to speak to us for free and impartial advice before making any decisions.
What if I am told that I need to act quickly in order to secure my inheritance?
If you feel that you are being pressured into making a decision, explain that you want to review the information to make an informed decision. Some heir hunters have been known to use ‘high pressure’ sales tactics as they are competing with other heir hunters to find someone to appoint them to work on the estate. If you feel that are being pushed into making a decision, tell the heir hunter that you do not feel comfortable with this approach.
Should I speak to other family members?
We recommend that you make contact with other family members to discuss the matter. It is quite possible that they will have also been contacted about the estate and could be legally entitled to a share of it as well. Working together as a family can help you make a considered decision about the best route forward for all of you.
Do I have to appoint an heir hunter to access my inheritance?
No, you can find out about your legal entitlement by carrying out research yourself or by appointing a professional genealogist to do this work on your behalf. The difference between using a genealogist and an heir hunter is that they will probably offer their services for a fixed fee that is agreed up front, rather than a percentage of the unknown estate value.
If you are in need of any advice regarding heir hunters, you can speak to our client services team on 0345 87 27 600
If you are contacted by an “Heir Hunters” who says that you that are due for a share in the estate left by a blood relative, the alarm bells may well ring! Sometimes quite rightly. Whether they appear on your doorstep, ring or write, you should at least listen. You wouldn’t want to lose a fortune by slamming down the phone on heir hunters who may well be a hard-working professional trying to help you.
Heir Hunters are by nature persistent, that is how they earn a living. They probably only found you after lengthy and detailed research, so they won’t be too keen on your ignoring their approach. They will generally get paid if they manage to find the right beneficiaries and they accept the inheritance. You might as well give them a few minutes!
Heir hunting is not regulated, though most Heir Hunters follow proper professional standards. Many belong to professional organisations such as the Heir Hunters-Association.
Heir Hunters spend a great deal of time trying to track down beneficiaries. As it is a highly competitive profession as beneficiaries may find that several researchers are looking for them. The beneficiaries they find are expected to pay a commission – usually a percentage of the value of their share of the estate left by their often unknown relative. But only if they inherit, unless they are unethical. But you should always read such agreements with great care.
When you do get to the stage of signing an agreement with Heir Hunters, there is still no guarantee that you will inherit. Nor how much you will inherit, or when. Complex estates often take years to sort out, though most are resolved in a few months. Your share may be one of dozens, or you might win the lottery. One estate of £2 million still remains unclaimed!
Heir Hunters can only bring good news. Maybe it’s best not to accept an offer immediately and sign with the first heir hunter to contact. Other heir hunters may be close on their heels, so you have nothing to lose by waiting to negotiate a better deal.
Consider negotiating terms with the heir hunters: even if you don’t sign, you may be “found” later. Naturally, there is a danger you may not be found, as other Heir Hunters may not find you. Without the efforts of the their research, the case may be closed without you getting anything. However the administrators usually take out insurance in case an unexpected beneficiary later emerges with a valid claim for a share – or indeed the whole estate.
Making an agreement with them means you have little to lose and a lot to gain. But sign the wrong deal and you could find it is unfair and swallows up a small inheritance. On the other hand, a fair and reasonable heir hunter you could become the sole beneficiary to an estate worth millions! Thanks to the efforts of a hard working heir hunter.
Unscrupulous heir hunters try to usurp the role of estate administrators and legitimate forensic genealogists by combing death notices and obituaries, tracking down unaware heirs, and then charging them exorbitant fees for connecting them with the inheritance they are rightfully owed under the law. If you or your clients are approached by an heir hunter, there are a few questions you and they should know to ask to make sure that they avoid the worst scams. Contact a professional and experienced forensic genealogist for qualified, legitimate, and thorough help identifying the proper heirs to an estate.
Who is the relative, and how am I related to them?
The putative heir should first attempt to learn the name of their deceased relative and their relationship. Quite often, heir hunters will not reveal that information until after the heir has agreed to their commission fee, which may prevent the heirs from conducting their own research and filing their own claims. Heirs should consider the heir hunter may still be due a reasonable fee before revealing the name and relationship to the relative.
What is the value of the estate, and how much is my share?
Heir hunters will try to get putative heirs to agree to their services before they know how much they are actually going to get and, in turn, how much they will be paying for the heir hunter’s services. An heir can ask after the total value of the estate and the number of other heirs to get a sense of their claim. If the heir hunter will not provide this information, or if they do not have it, an heir could eventually learn this for themselves by reaching out to the administrator of the estate.
What is the fee?
Heir hunters are known to charge hefty fees for their services, sometimes as much as 35 to 40 percent of the inherited amount. That fee may be well in excess of a reasonable cost or value of these services as rendered. Even if the heirs consider accepting an offer, they can refuse to pay such high fees.
How much time has the heir hunter spent looking for you?
If the heir does appreciate the service, they can ask how long it took to track them down. That will give them a better grasp of how much the service should be worth. Note: Most heir hunters do not provide services to heirs or the legal profession based on an hourly rate.
Don’t feel pressured
It is important to keep in mind that you should not worry if you do not wish to assign an heir hunter a commission immediately. You are still entitled to your inheritance under the law. In many cases, the administrator for the estate may have hired a legitimate forensic genealogist who will locate you for an economical fee to be paid as an expense to the estate.
If you’re an estate administrator in need of skilled help with identifying and locating missing heirs to an estate, or you are a purported heir in need of help evaluating the legitimacy of heir hunters, contact the efficient and effective forensic genealogists Von Langen, LLC at 800-525-7722.
Your prompt, thorough and professional services have been greatly appreciated in this effort. We will keep your card on file for future use and reference to our colleagues.
Last year, it was estimated two thirds of Brits didn’t have a will – with almost half of over-55s failing to arrange one.
When an individual with no known relatives dies without a will – known as dying intestate – their estate is passed to a division of the government legal department known as the ‘Bona Vacantia division’. Estates can stay on the Bona Vacantia list for up to 30 years if they’re not claimed.
Currently there are over 8,000 names on the Bona Vacantia list, meaning thousands of people across the country could be due a windfall from a relative they possibly didn’t even know existed. Authorities will make little attempt to trace these relatives, making it likely that many people might never find out about the inheritance they’re due.
It’s the job of probate genealogists like Anglia Research to find the beneficiaries of these unclaimed estates by tracing next of kin in order of priority. The closer the relation, the higher the entitlement to the inheritance.
I’ve been contacted by an heir hunter – is the offer genuine?
For many people, being contacted by an heir hunter comes out of the blue, as the estate is likely to belong to a very distant relative. There are often suspicions around our practices, with many in disbelief and thinking it’s too good to be true. With over five million people in the UK affected by financial fraud during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and over a third of Brits targeted by a scammer during lockdown alone, consumers are more wary than ever about contact from unknown businesses.
You should always take steps to ensure that the heir hunting firm you’re dealing with is genuine. Initial contact typically comes via letter, phone, or email – make sure to keep a record of this communication. Check the firm name and details on Companies House, the national registrar for UK companies. The business should also be listed on the Data Protection Register and registered with the Financial Conduct Authority.
Head to the firm’s website and see if there’s a list of team members. Your case manager should be included, and you can cross reference their details with other platforms such as LinkedIn to make sure the credentials match up.
Take your time to check any accreditations that are listed to make sure they are relevant, and can’t just be purchased for a small fee. Although there’s no mandatory regulatory body for heir hunters, some companies will be registered with industry bodies such as the Association of Probate Researchers (APR) which was the first of its kind in the industry. This organisation works to promote safe and ethical standards across the industry.
How can I find out if this is really my relative?
Understandably, many people are nervous about signing up to an heir hunter’s deal, especially if they’ve never heard of the deceased. There are lots of resources you can use to start tracing your family tree from home, which might give some clues as to whether the connection is genuine.
Ask your case manager for as much information about the individual as possible, including how you’re related to them. Understanding the connection might allow you to trace your relative through more familiar family members. Talking to relatives, especially older ones, is our number one tip for tracing an unclaimed estate. Grandparents and great aunts and uncles might have lived through three or even four generations and could be the missing link in your ancestry journey.
Online records offer a further wealth of information about family trees. If you know the deceased’s home town, check the local parish register for records of baptisms, marriages, and burials. The census is a further useful tool for verifying names and addresses – these have been recorded every 10 years in the UK since 1801 and hold information about occupation, birth date and marital status.
Should I pay a finders’ fee? Am I being ripped off?
Typically, an heir hunting firm will charge a percentage of any inheritance you eventually receive – if you don’t receive a benefit then there is no charge. At Anglia Research, the fee is decided by the value of the assets, the complexity of the case and many other aspects. However, for domestic cases this usually falls between 3-15% of the monies received. If the relative is abroad, this can be more as the research costs are more expensive. Lawyers estate administration fees are paid separately out of the estate before distribution.
You should never pay any money up front to an heir hunting firm – any request to do so is a definite red flag. Fees should only be paid once the inheritance is settled and it is normal for this to be deducted from your share at the point of distribution, and sent directly to the heir hunter. You should also never give your bank card details to an heir hunter: the only document you’ll need to supply is ID, to prove your potential relationship to the deceased. Your case manager and the company should not place any pressure on you to sign a fee agreement.
It’s advisable to check the small print in any contract to ensure that the company won’t try to make any additional charges to the estate in addition to the percentage fee they’ve requested. You may also be contacted by several different firms about the same estate, so take the time to do some research, and don’t be afraid of negotiating.
Beware of firms that might claim they’ve been instructed by a local authority or council to locate relatives of a deceased person. Contrary to government guidelines which advise that potential bona vacantia estates should be referred to the Bona Vacantia division as soon as possible after the death, it’s likely the heir hunter has persuaded the council to give them the details of the estate privately.
The consequence of this practice is that the relatives are only ever contacted by one company. Without any competition from other firms, the percentage fee relatives are asked to pay is much higher.
Transparency and ethical practice are key in the heir hunting industry, both for businesses and customers. Firms must work honestly with their clients to build trusting relationships that help to connect unclaimed estates with the rightful beneficiaries.
Consumers must be aware of their rights when signing a deal with an heir hunting firm – make sure to do your research and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Philip Turvey is executive director of Anglia Research
An Asset or Heir Finder is someone who charges a fee for locating an heir. Often the heir finder identifies abandoned or unclaimed property, locates the rightful owner or heir, and then wants to sign an agreement for a percentage of the property returned to the owner. There is no charge to the owner for the recovery of funds directly through the State Treasurer's Office.
Requirements for Asset Locator Companies
In order to obtain and maintain registered status, all asset locatorsmust post a performance bond of not less than $10,000 to insure the Treasurer's Office against any fraudulent or mistaken claims that may arise as a result of an heir finder's representation of an owner. A copy of any agreement, or contract, between an asset locator and an owner shall be filed with the Treasurer's Office, together with a signed by the owner and notarized “notice to claimant” form, as prescribed by the Treasurer, describing the rights of the owner under this section.
An agreement between an owner and an asset locator, the primary purpose of which is to locate, deliver, recover or assist in the recovery of property that is presumed abandoned, shall be void and unenforceable if it was entered into during the period commencing on the date the property was presumed abandoned and extending to a time that is 24 months after the date the property is paid or delivered to the treasurer. This subsection shall not apply to an agreement between an owner and a Vermont licensed attorney to file a claim as to identified property or contest the treasurer's denial of a claim.
An agreement between an owner and an asset locator, the primary purpose of which is to locate, deliver, recover or assist in the recovery of property that is presumed abandoned, shall be enforceable only if the agreement is in writing in a form acceptable to the Treasurer, clearly sets forth the nature of the property and the services to be rendered, is signed by the apparent owner, and states the value of the property before and after the fee or other compensation has been deducted.
If an agreement covered by this section applies to mineral proceeds, and the agreement contains a provision to pay compensation that includes a portion of the underlying minerals or any mineral proceeds not then presumed abandoned, the provision is void and unenforceable.
An agreement between an owner and an asset locator, the primary purpose of which is to locate, deliver, recover or assist in the recovery of property that is presumed abandoned and that provides for compensation that exceeds 10 percent of the value of the unclaimed property, shall be unenforceable. This section does not preclude an owner from asserting that an agreement covered by this section is invalid on grounds other than excessive compensation.
No claim form may be sent to an asset locator without the prior written permission of the owner, or the owner's legal representative. Payments of all claims made to an owner who has been assisted by an asset locator shall be made to the owner, and not to the asset locator. An owner may not assign his or her rights, or property interests, under this chapter to an asset locator.
One man, turned heir hunter, has carved out an international business by putting people together with forgotten fortunes that they inherited through the death of a relative who died intestate. Or, in other words, without a will.
It wasn’t always easy though. There was a time when genealogists were not taken seriously – mainly because little was known about the profession.
Fast forward 22 years, and Danny is a regular guest on BBC’s Heir Hunters – due to return to our screens soon – and his business boasts a turnover of £7million.
Finders International hires around 100 staff across its London, Edinburgh, Dublin and Australian offices and has also launched satellite offices in the US and South Africa and is trying to expand in these markets.
The heir hunting industry has also matured since 1998, when his business was launched.
t’s now a highly competitive industry, which is why Danny is reluctant to talk about profits, and the probate detective services are regularly sought out by councils and solicitors that don’t have the capacity, funding or manpower to do in-depth genealogical searches.
The heir hunting industry is not regulated by any official governmental bodies or agencies but it has taken steps to self-regulate and also upholds the rules of the Professional Paralegal Register.
To keep the industry in check, Danny created the first international body – the International Association of Professional Probate Hunters.
The IAPPR now represents 12 international companies spread across the world.
Are large windfalls common?
Danny says: ‘While there are plenty of cases where large estate values are discovered in the millions, in the majority of cases however individual entitlements are not likely to be large.’
Large windfalls are rare because estates often need to be divided by all of the next of kin.
At the moment average estate values are typically between £20,000–£50,000 according to Finders International.
Danny points out that in one case £10,000 was shared between 17 eligible beneficiaries.
But large pay outs are possible too. In one case £650,000 was left to one individual from a relative they did not even know they had while in another a nice and aunt were reunited after three decades with a £250,000 inheritance.
How does ‘heir hunting’ work?
An heir hunter will approach you by sending a letter or calling you to say that you’re due an inheritance.
They may not and disclose who the deceased is, but they may give you an estimate on your inheritance.
If you agree to go ahead with the investigation, they should give you a contract stating that their company will be hired to investigate and locate the inheritance.
The consumer protection rights of cancellation of contract extends to potential heirs who sign up to an heir hunter.
It means customers have up to 14 days to change their minds if they’re not comfortable with the process.
If you agree to hire the company and pay the commission – which can be anything from 15-25 per cent or higher, the rest of the risk will be taken on by the heir hunter.
But it’s possible to negotiate this fee.
Danny says his average fee is 20 per cent but it could be more for complex cases. ‘If there’s a risky case that requires high investment we could charge more.
‘We once had a case where we had to excavate a body for a DNA test. We could’ve lost everything but luckily the DNA test was positive.’
After the contract is signed the heir hunter will take on the risk and research.
Danny says: ‘This can involve everything from raiding the national archives, census reports, war records, trawling through insolvency documents and of course embarking on a will search – one of the most important pieces in the puzzle of distributing assets to heirs (if there is one).
‘It’s this entire suite of services which is the value Finders brings.’
Watch out for scams
Heir hunting is a long established, legitimate business. That’s not to say that criminals haven’t tried to take advantage of the fame that the industry has attracted through the popular BBC series.
Danny says: ‘There’s been a few cases where people have posed as heir hunters or are heir hunters on an amateur level that don’t understand their legal requirements.
‘We’re very easy to check up on. We have formed a voluntary regulatory body but there are other ways to check up on a company such as through Trading Standards and the Association of Professional Genealogists.’
There shouldn’t be any ‘hidden charges’ and heir hunters don’t ask for money upfront.
They typically work together with solicitors that specialise in wills and probate.
Solicitors fees don’t form part of an heir hunters commission and are charged separately.
Fees are deducted after the estate is wound up and before the assets are distributed to the eligible and surviving family members.
Not all cases fetch a fee. In the last 12 months Finders International completed 1,342 cases and, of those, 531 were pro bono.
Danny says: ‘We have relationships with local authorities and we often help them solve cases where people die in their care without a will or next of kin’.
If they don’t find any heirs it’s the local authorities that are responsible for funeral costs but sometimes Finders International will take on the costs.
Danny says: We have a funeral fund that we use to pay for public sector funerals, commonly known as pauper’s funerals.’
Danny believes social isolation is only set to increase as populations continue to grow.
He says: ‘More people are living alone and this will lead to more assets remaining unclaimed, especially across borders.’
His next steps are to increase Finders International’s international footprint and getting to grips with legislation in other countries.
While the industry is now recognised, there are a limited number of professionals serving it and the tracing work, although helped by technology and social media, is onerous.
But Danny wouldn’t have it any other way. ‘I started off as a sole trader and now employ over 100 staff. The life changing experiences I’ve been a part of has been very rewarding.’
Although the term ‘heir hunter’ might only be familiar to you through the BBC daytime show of the same name, it is actually a real job, and it could be that, one day, an heir hunter might contact you.
Heir hunters, also called probate detectives or genealogist researchers, are tasked with the job of finding family members after people die intestate (ie they die without leaving a will) and there is no immediate family to inherit their estate, or when there is a will and beneficiaries are mentioned, but there is trouble finding them. Since it is a rare thing for someone to die and not have at least one living relative, no matter how distant, it is in the heir hunter’s interests to find them. If not, after a period of time – currently 12 years – the entire estate will be passed to the government’s treasury department. Once that happens, even if a relative is subsequently found, the money cannot be returned.
Once an heir hunter finds a case to proceed with, their first step is to create a family tree for the deceased person. They will need to investigate and dig deep into archives in order to find various branches of the tree, and ascertain who is the rightful heir of the estate. Although they have 12 years before the government can take the estate, there is still a time element involved as there will be various different heir hunting firms working on the same case. The first one to find the beneficiary and sign them to the firm will receive the commission.
Commission can range from anywhere between 10 and 30 percent (plus VAT) of the total estate, although some firms are now charging a fixed fee instead. Depending on the size of the estate, this could be a cheaper way of receiving an inheritance.
If an heir hunting firm gets in touch with you regarding a potential inheritance, don’t panic and sign the first contract you see – you could be better of waiting to see what other offers and ‘deals’ you are given by other firms. This could be the difference between many thousands of pounds.
Published by fleetwoodheirhunting
Welcome to Fleetwood Heir Hunting Services Limited. We have a wide range of services designed to trace heirs and beneficiaries to unclaimed intestate cases and unclaimed financial assets. We focus on tracing living people who are entitled to claim or receive money under the terms of a will or as a result of intestacy, often where they are unaware of their entitlement. The Fleetwood Heir Hunting Services has a combined 40 years experience in Bona Vacantia, Genealogy Research, Heir Hunting, Unclaimed Estates and Family Tree Research. We are based in Croydon in Surrey but our services cover the whole of the UK. View all posts by fleetwoodheirhunting
The number of probate genealogy companies has grown since we first filmed ‘Heir Hunters’ with the BBC back in 2004. Few people knew of our work. We called ourselves ‘Heir Hunters’ and the TV production company named the show after it. What audiences saw on TV was only a small part of our work and this encouraged people to try their hand at tracing missing heirs. However, the reality is more complex than what the cameras filmed and the influx of new entrants has led to an increase in fraud and improper management of estate assets. That’s why we’re on a mission to shine a light on bad business practices in our industry.
In recent months, we have become aware of genealogy firms claiming to offer professional services for heirs to an estate. However, upon closer inspection, we identified gaps in the information they provided, perhaps to mask their lack of experience, or maybe to hide their identity and prevent anyone from verifying their claims.
What did we find?
When you go online and search for an heir hunter or genealogist, you’ll come across many advertisements and websites. At first sight, their web presence might look professional, like the example of a company called “The Heir Hunters” – but look on their ‘About us’ page and none of their staff are presented.
Celtic Research is upfront with its clients, so compare the example above, with our team page: everyone has a name, photo, personal statement and their defined role. The public should beware of companies that do not name a single director, or representative. If you see a lack of transparency, you should ask: Who and what are they trying to hide?
Another firm called, Family Wise Ltd., is misusing the logos of reputable institutions on their company stationery without permission. They have a prominent section in all their correspondence with logos from the BBC, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and Companies House:
Our investigation can reveal that Family Wise Ltd. do not have permission to use any of these three logos and action is being taken by these institutions against this firm. In their reply to us, Companies House stated that Family Wise “are not able to use our logo for promotional purposes or to give the impression we endorse or work in partnership with them”.
You can also see on their invoice that they charge additional estate administration fees, which should have formed part of the full service they provide. We have already highlighted such malpractices in our previous article.
Not surprisingly, there is much confusion about how to figure out whether a genealogy firm is “real” or “legitimate”. Just have a look at the online forum of the Money Saving Expert:
At the time of writing we can confirm that, Windsor Probate, who are mentioned in this forum, were not registered as a data controller with the ICO -in breach of the General Data Protection Regulation 2018 (GDPR). Windsor Probate manage sensitive personal client data and are required to register with the ICO, but our work uncovered their lack of compliance with the law.
We hope our work helps you identify a company you can trust to act in your best interest.
Follow these 4 steps before signing a contract with anyone claiming to be an heir hunter:
- Look through the firm’s website and see if it can provide information about the company and their team. Beware if they are afraid to show you who they are.
- Check if they are registered with Companies House and ICO by searching for their name on those websites.
- Check if they’re affiliated with the bodies they claim to have an association with
- Contact your solicitor if you are unsure about what to do
Prevention is key – so stay tuned for Celtic Research’s upcoming articles with more specialist advice. Get in touch if you have more questions!