How to Know if You Could Be the Lost Heir to a Fortune
COULD you qualify for a boon from a long-lost relative?
There are thousands of unclaimed estates in England and Wales and some people might be owed a small fortune without knowing it.
This week, Harriet Meyer delves into the world of heir hunting, where professionals track down the missing beneficiaries of a relative’s estate.
WHAT IS THE HEIRS HUNT?
AMY-LOUISE MOYES does this for a living – tracking down people who may be legally entitled to a stake in an estate.
She works for Finders International, reuniting legitimate heirs with their share of inheritance from a parent who died without a will or with an invalid will.
The money and property of the deceased first pass to the Crown, then the race is on to find an heir.
Amy, 38, says, “I like it when there’s a mystery to solve.”
There are currently around 6,774 unclaimed domains in England and Wales.
Property unclaimed after 30 years is pocketed for good by the government. But until then, it’s up to the heir hunters to find the beneficiaries.
HOW IT WORKS
THE government publishes a list of unclaimed property – known as Bona Vacantia, or “ownerless property”, which is updated daily.
You won’t find property values, but they must be worth at least £500 to be listed.
You can search the listing yourself and file a claim, but the process can be expensive and time-consuming. You will need to build a family tree, listing dates of birth, marriage, and death, and pay for copies of certificates for each person between you and the deceased.
An heir hunter does the work for you, for a fee. But keep in mind that you’re probably not the only heir to an estate and around 95% of those listed are worth less than £1,000.
The majority of cases that heir hunters take on are larger estates that come directly from attorneys. Those like Amy do the hard work and research to find and contact recipients directly.
But finding extended families is not an easy task.
Amy says, “Genealogical research involves sorting through vital records, censuses and directories, military records and international records, to name a few examples.
According to Finders International, the average domain is valued between £20,000 and £50,000.
Amy adds: “Social media can be used for research and DNA evidence has been used to prove the right. In one case, a body was exhumed to verify the DNA of the deceased. The case took two years to resolve, but the beneficiary inherited £1million.
Amy is a regular on the BBC show Heir Hunters, which is currently airing on All 4. She has worked at Finders for 14 years since studying law at university.
She says, “Work is a nice balance. I use my legal training, while the family history side sweetens the work day. It’s never the same.
If you may be entitled to an inheritance, you will receive a letter or phone call letting you know. You may be visited in person by a company representative.
HOW MUCH YOU PAY
HEIR hunters typically charge 10-25% of the inheritance, but the fee depends on the complexity of the case and can sometimes be higher.
The fee is usually around 10-15% of the inheritance if there are only a few beneficiaries, or just one.
But if there is a large family to investigate, the cost increases. You can try to haggle over the price, and you don’t have to stay with the heir hunter who approaches you.
You can contact another company to ask if they are willing to undertake the research, but there is no guarantee that they will, and the fees may be similar.
Estates can be distributed among dozens of beneficiaries. A case following the death of a West Country couple who had not made a will involved 100 beneficiaries. Payments ranged from £6.95 to £6,000.
Larger payouts can make a huge difference to recipients.
A disabled woman inherited £650,000 from a relative she had never met, says Amy. She used the money to pay off her mortgage, adapt her house and go on a cruise.
Finders International often uncovers a wide range of items that can be reunited with families, such as war medals and family bibles listing births and marriages. Amy says: “Once someone found a small vase, and it turned out to be from a Chinese dynasty and sold for £20,000 at auction.”
BEWARE OF SCAMS
The heir-hunting business is a prime target for scammers, especially as it rose to fame thanks to the BBC series.
Fraudsters posed as heir hunters to gain access to people’s personal information.
You can verify that a business is legitimate with local Trading Standards offices, Companies House, the Association of Professional Genealogists, or other official sources listed on the Heir Hunters website.
Dominic Green, testamentary trusts and estates specialist at Paul Robinson Solicitors, says: “The risk of the ‘individual group’ or less reputable companies becoming involved in these estates includes finding incorrect relatives, making incorrect distributions or distributions to bad relatives. Any mistake like this can lead to huge implications for heirs and significant legal costs.
He warns people to beware of heir hunters who charge upfront fees.
Heir hunting is a competitive industry and is not regulated by any official government body. But most heir hunters are subject to rules and standards.
Finders International has co-created an international self-regulatory body for heir hunters, the International Association of Professional Probate Hunters (IAPPR).
This establishes a strict code of conduct and ethics, and so far 13 heir hunting societies around the world have signed up.
l Scotland has different rules on unclaimed estates. The Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer website has more information about this. See qltr.gov.uk. In Northern Ireland, call the Crown Solicitor’s Office on 028 9054 6037.
THE LOST BROTHER’S MONEY
Retired nurse Jill Gerrard inherited around £15,000 from a half-brother she never knew.
Jill, 66, received a letter from heir hunters Fraser & Fraser after it was discovered that she and her two sisters were entitled to long-lost brother money.
She says: “It was a shock and also sad, because I had tried to find him but he had died. But it’s good that the money didn’t go to the government.
She knew her father had a son before he met his mother. He died in a retirement home in Nottingham, aged 82, without leaving a will, but separated from family.
Jill, from Nottingham, believes her half-brother was eventually adopted and adds: ‘I tried to find him but had a hard time. I think he may have died of Covid.
Fraser & Fraser charged Jill 15% of her inheritance. Their work began in August 2020 and the heirs received their money in June this year. Jill will use hers to pay for living expenses and may buy an RV.
There is an estimated £50billion of unclaimed money languishing in UK pensions, bank accounts and savings.
You may have lost track of your accounts if you’ve moved multiple times or changed employers. But it’s simple and quick to check.
If you know the bank or building society, contact them directly first.
Otherwise go to mylostaccount.org.uk claim online. You’ll need your name, previous addresses, and the names of any vendors you think might have your money. It takes up to three months for the research to be completed.
You can also try Gretel, a free search service launched in April. You can search for old accounts, pensions and investments.
The government’s free pension search service will find the contact details you need to start looking for an old pension. But it won’t tell you if you have money or not, nor the value.
You can perform a quick and easy search of exceptional NS&I premium bond prices online using the price checker at nsandi.com.