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
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’