heir hunters - why leave your estate to chance?
In March, a friend of mine received a letter from a firm of heir
hunters informing him that a distant relative of his had died and
inviting my friend to contact them. Keen to find out more
about his unexpected windfall he did so and was happy to sign up to
their fee agreement, which was 20% of his inheritance. Later
when all the family had been located he was not so happy to
discover that whilst some of the beneficiaries had signed up, not
all had done so and those who had not, stood to receive all of
their inheritance whilst he would only receive 80% of his.
If you find yourself being approached by an
heir hunter (which is the common name for professional genealogists
who specialise in finding beneficiaries) then you may wish to think
Firstly, being cautious because it may be a
scam. Fraudsters are approaching people and informing them
that they are due a large inheritance but requesting that they send
them some money first, and of course, the inheritance never
materialises. If you receive such an email you may want to
contact your trusted solicitor for advice.
Secondly, before signing up, carrying out some
research of your own, by contacting family members to find out who
may have died. The heir hunter may not be willing to disclose
information, but try to find out from them the name of the person
who has passed away and what relation they are to you.
The Treasury Solicitor's Bona Vacantia (Latin for
'ownerless goods') website provides a list of unclaimed
estates. The Treasury Solicitor administers the estates of
people who die without a Will and without known surviving
relatives. On the website are published the names of all
their deceased estates, the deceased's marital status, when they
died and their places of death. The Treasury Solicitor also
places advertisements in the national and local papers.
The website has a useful family tree to help
determine if you are a relative entitled to a share of an intestate
estate. If you believe you are entitled, you can make a free
claim on the website for your inheritance. If your claim is
accepted, the Treasury Solicitor will give up his interest in the
Thirdly, if your research is not fruitful then
consider sitting tight for a while. Unbeknown to you there is
likely to be a whole host of people (the Treasury Solicitor,
Genealogists and Solicitors) trying to find you.
The Treasury Solicitor will follow up on any
leads he has. Once a beneficiary is found, if that person
takes up the role of administrator they will be responsible for
ensuring that all reasonable steps are taken to find all the
beneficiaries of the estate before it can be distributed. The
personal representatives can instruct a genealogist to locate any
missing beneficiaries. Once one beneficiary is found it can
be fairly easy for that person to get in touch with his relatives
who may also be entitled, although the more distant the family the
harder this may be.
In any event you have at least 12 years from
the date of death to bring an action to claim a share of a Bona
Vacantia estate. It is only if, after 30 years have passed
and no claim is brought, that the estate passes to the Crown.
It is your decision as to whether you sign up
to the agreement with the heir hunter but be very aware of the fees
charged, which will usually be a percentage of your
inheritance. The heir hunting industry is unregulated and I
have seen fees of between 15% and 33.3%. Discuss with the
heir hunter whether any other charging structure is offered and
consider which is best. That said, it is likely at this stage
that neither you nor the heir hunter will know the value of the
estate and how many other beneficiaries there are. It can
therefore be difficult to know how much you are likely to end up
paying. The heir hunter should recommend that you take
independent legal advice and you would be well-advised to do
The figures for 2011/12 published by the
Treasury Solicitor reveal that there were 28,170 Bona Vacantia
cases last year and that income of over £33 million was generated
from the realisation of estates passing to the Crown.
The only way to be certain as to the
destination of your estate is to have a well drafted Will and
ensure that it is kept up-to-date. As with heir hunters, many
Will writers are unregulated and therefore you may wish to ensure
that you are assisted by a suitably qualified professional.
To find a specialist in your area, you may wish to check the
Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners
(STEP) website at .
For further information, please contact Alison
Craggs, solicitor in Blake Lapthorn's Succession and Tax team and a member of the
Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners and Solicitors for the
Elderly based in Oxford. She can be
reached at alison.craggs@Bllaw.co.uk
or on 01865 254 209.
Alternatively, contact the head of team in the
office nearest you:
Brooks, partner and head of Private Client
Services group in our Portsmouth office, on 023 9228
2714 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Antoniou, partner in our Oxford
office, on 01865 254286 or at email@example.com.
associate in our Southampton and Portsmouth offices, on 023 8085
7282 / 023 9228 2775 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Smith, partner in our London
office, on 020 7814 5438 or at email@example.com.
Alternatively, email our general enquiries helpdesk