The heir-rais­ing pro­bate re­searchers you should avoid

Any­one can be a pro­bate re­searcher to­day – so how can you tell which ones to trust with your fam­ily cash? By Harry Bren­nan

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Front Page -

Ease of ac­cess to on­line in­for­ma­tion and a grow­ing aware­ness of the pro­fes­sion thanks to tele­vi­sion pro­grammes have led to an in­flux of am­a­teur “heir hunters” look­ing to make quick money by rip­ping off clients, ex­perts have warned. These firms, also known as pro­bate re­searchers, search for peo­ple who have died “in­tes­tate” – with­out leav­ing a will – and match their un­claimed es­tates with long-lost rel­a­tives. If no heir is found, the as­sets be­come the prop­erty of the Crown.

The Trea­sury Solic­i­tor is the gov­ern­ment depart­ment re­spon­si­ble for col­lect­ing and dis­burs­ing “bona va­can­tia” (own­er­less goods). It re­ceived £93m in un­claimed wealth in 2017-18 and re­leased £11m to pre­vi­ously uniden­ti­fied rel­a­tives.

It said it had re­ceived a higher num­ber of claims from kin in re­cent years, thanks in part to the pub­lic­ity given to its on­line un­claimed es­tates list, which is up­dated daily, on the BBC tele­vi­sion se­ries Heir Hunters.

Pro­bate re­search was once the pur­suit of a close-knit group of pro­fes­sion­als, rac­ing to find the heirs of lost in­her­i­tances ad­ver­tised only in the printed press. But free­dom of in­for­ma­tion and the emer­gence of the in­ter­net, with lost es­tates now be­ing pub­li­cised on­line, have al­lowed genealogy hob­by­ists to ac­cess a wealth of data and trans­form their pas­time into a small busi­ness.

This ease of ac­ces­si­bil­ity has re­sulted in in­ex­pe­ri­enced firms, one-man op­er­a­tions and even re­tired cou­ples work­ing out of their front rooms join­ing the pre­vi­ously lit­tle­known in­dus­try, ac­cord­ing to in­sid­ers.

Longer-es­tab­lished firms have ac­cused these new­com­ers of charg­ing clients du­bi­ous ex­penses, tak­ing short­cuts in re­search and, in some cases, of fla­grant fraud. One fraud­u­lent heir hunter was jailed last year.

Hec­tor Birch­wood, a part­ner at heir hunt­ing firm Celtic Re­search, said peo­ple needed to be made aware of the “ne­far­i­ous be­hav­iour” of “cow­boy ge­neal­o­gists” to avoid be­ing caught out by rogue re­searchers.

Philip Tur­vey of Anglia Re­search, an­other firm, said rogue heir hunters of­ten charged clients twice for the same service. On top of their finder’s fee – the in­dus­try stan­dard is typ­i­cally around 25pc of the value of the es­tate – some firms will charge ill-de­fined “ad­min­is­tra­tion ex­penses” that can run to thou­sands of pounds.

“They claim these ex­penses are for re­search, or birth and death cer­tifi­cates,” Mr Tur­vey said. “But this should be taken out of the heir hunter’s share of the es­tate and never charged to a client.”

Mr Birch­wood re­called one in­ci­dent where a client was charged for be­ing is­sued a cheque. Tele­graph Money has seen other cases where clients have been forced to pay ex­tra to ac­cess their fam­ily tree.

Neil Fraser, a part­ner at re­search firm Fraser & Fraser, said “ex­penses” were “a com­plete non­sense”.

He added: “They are es­sen­tially un­lim­ited, so these firms can charge what­ever they like. All costs should be in­cluded in the main per­cent­age fee.”

On top of the pos­si­bil­ity of ad­di­tional costs, rogue heir hunters will of­ten not be equipped to pro­vide the best level of service, ex­perts say. They could lack the re­sources for the amount of re­search needed to find the clos­est heir of the per­son who died in­tes­tate, for ex­am­ple. It may be too ex­pen­sive or time con­sum­ing to trace rel­a­tives who might have moved abroad.

Some heir hunters will sim­ply make a claim on an es­tate on be­half of the first liv­ing rel­a­tive they can find, who may not be the ac­tual next in line to in­herit, Mr Tur­vey said. This, like the ill-de­fined ex­penses, is a way to keep costs down and make the big­gest and quick­est profit they can on their per­cent­age cut, he added.

The Trea­sury Solic­i­tor will re­lease as­sets to any­one who has a greater claim than the Crown. This means that, in the ab­sence of any ev­i­dence of closer rel­a­tives, an es­tate will be given to the first re­la­tion with a claim. Any pay­ment made will not be re­cov­er­able if a su­pe­rior claim is made in the fu­ture.

Mr Fraser said larger, es­tab­lished firms would be in­sured against the like­li­hood that a closer rel­a­tive could come forward at a later date to ask for their in­her­i­tance.

“One-man re­search com­pa­nies sim­ply won’t qual­ify for in­sur­ance, leav­ing ev­ery­one ex­posed if a closer heir is found later,” he said. “Thanks to tele­vi­sion, the in­dus­try is now bet­ter known than it has ever been, but we have no reg­u­la­tion. Quite frankly, the in­dus­try is un­po­liced.”

In­dus­try lead­ers have taken to polic­ing the ac­tions of oth­ers them­selves, rep­ri­mand­ing am­a­teur re­searchers with stern let­ters from their so­lic­i­tors. Mr Fraser said the changes to the in­dus­try had opened it up to fraud­sters.

Mary-anne Grif­fiths, 60, lost her share of an in­her­i­tance when a fraud­u­lent heir hunter, Daniel Bates, walked away with around £10,000 of fam­ily cash. Bates ap­proached Mrs Grif­fiths, a PR con­sul­tant, in 2013 and said she and five of her cousins were en­ti­tled to the es­tate of an un­known and dis­tant cousin.

The fam­ily agreed that he would ad­min­is­ter and dis­trib­ute the es­tate, al­low­ing him to take a 25pc cut, but later dis­cov­ered that Bates sim­ply kept the money for him­self. Af­ter sev­eral months of ig­nor­ing phone calls and emails, along with at­tempts to stall with ex­cuses about the com­plex­ity of the case, Bates cut off all con­tact with the fam­ily.

Even­tu­ally, the po­lice con­tacted Mrs Grif­fiths and her cousins and told them that Bates was un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion for fraud. Bates’s crim­i­nal ac­tiv­i­ties were widely re­ported last year, when he re­ceived a two-year prison sen­tence for cheat­ing 19 peo­ple out of al­most £100,000 with his heir-hunt­ing scam.

“We were nat­u­rally sus­pi­cious from the start and we were ap­proached by a num­ber of firms,” Mrs Grif­fiths said. “But when we couldn’t see any­thing to dis­tin­guish him from the other heir hunters, we agreed to take him up on his of­fer.”

She said she had re­cently re­ceived a let­ter from the courts in­form­ing her and her cousins that they were en­ti­tled to re­ceive sev­eral thou­sand pounds from money re­cov­ered from Bates. She added that they would re­ceive only a por­tion of what they would have in­her­ited orig­i­nally.

Mr Birch­wood said such prac­tices were giv­ing the in­dus­try a bad name and that peo­ple needed to know what ques­tions to ask if they were ap­proached by any­one claim­ing to be an heir hunter to avoid be­ing ripped off.

He said any­one told they were in line for an un­ex­pected in­her­i­tance should ques­tion their re­la­tion­ship to the de­ceased and whether there was the like­li­hood of closer kin else­where. They should check that the re­searcher is in­sured in case some­one with a su­pe­rior claim to the es­tate is found later.

Peo­ple should also ask for a clear ex­pla­na­tion of the charges and should not ac­cept any fees on top of an heir hunter’s per­cent­age take.

‘The in­dus­try is now bet­ter known than it has ever been, but we have no reg­u­la­tion’

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