Heir Hunting – tracing the owners of unclaimed assets
By Maurice S Clarke
The term “Heir Hunter” and “Heir Hunting” came into popular use due to the BBC series of programs “Heir Hunters” which features the work of probate research firms tracking down the beneficiaries to intestate estates held by HM Treasury and listed as Bona Vacantia (“ownerless goods”) on their web site.
The TV program created much interest from the public who wanted to learn how to become an “Heir Hunter” (aka probate researcher, or probate detective) and until 2009 there was no information or source of knowledge about how to go about this task, the work until then largely being done by a small number of established genealogists and probate research firms, many of whom were based in London.
A small association of Heir Hunters was formed (HHA) and new entrants began to learn their new craft, by 2012 over 12,000 unclaimed estates were held by HM Treasury for intestate deaths in England and Wales, and a large number of people had become “Heir Hunters.”
Most new entrants come with a pre-existing interest in Family Research even if only just their own family – some continued with their full time careers and carry out estate research in their part time. Others start in retirement or after redundancy.
Not everyone succeeds – it is not a get rich quick program, cash flow even for successful researchers can take 6 months or more to even start, and earnings depend on the size of the estates, the values of which remain unknown until a claim is accepted.
Despite the lack of any qualifications needed to perform this work, and no regulatory control, active researchers have a good reputation, although fraud and trickery is rife and considerable suspicion exists from people who are approached by researchers advising them of a possible inheritance.
Considerable tact and diplomacy is needed to allay their concerns and suspicions and the HHA are regularly consulted about the credibility of their members and other inheritance issues.
The main frauds are perpetrated via email where vast; usually millions are promised in return for upfront fees to release non existing inheritances. True researchers make contact by telephone, letter or personal visits and need to quickly gain and keep the confidence of their prospective clients.
Heirs to an estate must lodge a claim by statute within 12 years of the death of the intestate; otherwise the money passes to the State, although normally claims made within 30 years will be considered. Interest is usually paid on estates claimed within the statutory period, but later claims do not enjoy that privilege.
Researchers may identify one single heir to an estate, or dozens; however they need to lodge a claim based on just one known blood relative to the deceased. The deceased and the claimant would essentially be descended from the same grandparents. Others entitled are assessed once the claim is accepted by HM Treasury and the funds released.
For smaller estates under £15,000 in value the researcher will often take on the role of Administrator of the estate and arrange for all beneficiaries to be identified and paid out. Some 75% or more of all estates fall into this this small value category.
For larger estates a more formal process called a Grant of Letters of Administration are sought and a probate solicitor is used to administer the estate. Again the number of beneficiaries may be small or large, and the entire process can take 1-2 years to finalise, longer if there are complications.
Larger estates when finalised are usually insured using “Missing Beneficiary Insurance” in case a valid claimant is found or claims possibly years later, this gives peace of mind to those who are paid sums which may later prove is owed in all or part to another.
Typically researchers charge a commission on a no-win, no-fee basis of 10-35% plus VAT of their client’s inheritance. The smaller firms working from a low overhead home base usually charge circa 20% and are below the VAT threshold so are often seen as more competitive than the larger firms with massive overheads to maintain. There has been much criticism from beneficiaries over high fees and commissions and many heirs claim direct with the Treasury themselves.
Most beneficiaries prefer to hand over the task to professional researchers, especially a HHA member, and consider the fees reasonable especially when the research required is complex and time consuming.
To the lucky beneficiary it is often not about the money they might receive, but learning about lost family and new relatives they were not aware of, often in distant countries. Whilst some life changing inheritances are paid out, the reality is estates are usually shared with many others and each person’s stake useful, but not in any shape a fortune.
Heir Hunting Opportunities Elsewhere
In Scotland for example intestate accounts are handled differently, most significantly the fact that estate values are known when a list of unclaimed estates is published together with additional information such as the date and place of birth of the deceased, and their last known address.
Scottish law allows research to go back a further generation if necessary and can have the problem in generating a greater number of heirs to the unclaimed estate. Claims must be lodged within 10 years so there is a greater urgency to trace heirs.
Claiming Scottish intestate estates is more complex and costly which deters many Heir Hunters from claiming known small value estates. Generally researchers are residents of Scotland who are better situated to understand and submit claims in the proper manner. Only Scottish legal firms can handle most of the legal procedures.
In most other countries around the world the State will ultimately take an intestate estate if an heir cannot be found and many countries maintain in-house research departments reducing the need and opportunity for UK type “Heir Hunters.”
UK researchers often call on their foreign counterparts to assist with more complex research, so there is considerable scope for co-operation worldwide especially in the USA, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand where many heirs now live.
Whilst people dying without making a will are in the majority there is often research work tracing beneficiaries to willed estates where those heirs cannot be traced. In this context researchers are paid on a daily or hourly rate for their research time, funded from the estate administered by the legal firm.
Many researchers use legal firms to administer their higher value BV cases in return for being used to carry out research work for the lawyers when needed.
Whilst intestate estates have been the backbone business for researchers the HHA has recently established a new division called Missing Millions which focuses on and identifying unclaimed financial assets held by a wide range of financial organisations.
Unlike BV estates there is NO time limit on claiming and many assets have lain unclaimed for many decades racking up interest and bonuses swelling an initial investment of a few hundreds of pounds into many thousands by today’s standards.
The attraction for HHA researchers working on Missing Millions is less of a family tree search and faster less complex pay-outs when, and if the asset beneficiary is found. Commission along similar lines to BV cases are normal, reducing the costs to the asset holding organisation that is often reluctant to invest in potentially expensive and complex research.
As families move around more and family ties become more complex, and with marriage becoming less common there seems ample opportunities for people to get into asset research, but there are no great fortunes to be made. However with logic, dedication and focus anyone with a keen interest in family research can adapt to the tracing of living relatives – and reunite lucky clients with not only an unexpected windfall but potentially a whole new perspective into their family history.
Maurice Clarke is the founding chair of the Heir Hunters Association (HHA) which represents the interests of over 300 independent probate and missing asset researchers ( www.hha-uk.com ) and more recently the founder of Missing Millions a web based database project of unclaimed financial assets ( https://www.missingmillions.org.uk ) He regularly gives talks and lectures on the subject of asset research and the work of the HHA to Local Family History Groups and Master Class events for HHA members.
Copyright Maurice S Clarke © 2012