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Contacted by an heir hunter? How to tell if it’s genuine

Written by: Philip Turvey
If you’re contacted by an heir hunter, you may wonder whether the unexpected inheritance is legitimate. Here’s what you need to know.

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

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