/ Money

Are heir hunters cheating us out of our inheritance?

Vintage family photo

Heir hunters, firms that track down “missing” heirs, may promise an unexpected windfall. But their fees can leave you with far less than you’d otherwise be entitled to. Have you been approached by an heir hunter?

If you watch daytime TV, you’ve probably seen the BBC’s Heir Hunters programme. It’s compulsive viewing. Heir hunter firms race against the clock to find missing heirs to estates and claim some of the inheritance money for themselves in fees.

The programme’s appeal is similar to Who Do You Think You Are? since you learn about the genealogy involved in tracing the deceased’s family tree. However, there can be a darker side to the work heir hunters do.

Excessive heir hunter fees

A number of firms charge excessive fees, meaning heirs can end up paying way more than if they had been charged by the time spent actually tracing them and carrying out the administration involved.

We’ve heard of one firm charging as much as 40% plus VAT, which equates to £120,000 of a £250,000 estate. Yet, the work might have only cost a few thousand pounds if based on the time spent.

What’s more, some firms don’t reveal the name of the deceased or the value of the estate when getting the heir to sign the contract agreeing to their terms. This means that you don’t know how much you will end up paying if you sign and are not in a position to assess whether the fees are fair.

Your inheritance rights

If you know who the relative is, you can make the claim yourself. Even if you did nothing you could get your inheritance anyway, as the administrator of the will has a duty to make sure all the heirs to an estate get their money. Yet, some heir hunters may imply that you will only get it if you sign their contract.

To avoid your relatives being approached by heir hunters when you die, you should make a will and keep it up-to-date.

Firms might argue that they do valuable work in making sure people receive inheritances and that this is an unexpected windfall for most people. They might also say that they risk time and money tracing people who may not sign up – leaving them out of pocket. Still, is it really necessary to charge fees so much higher than would be charged on a time-spent basis?

What do you think? Would you be happy to pay a large fee for an unexpected windfall, or do you think some heir hunters are exploiting the general lack of knowledge around this area?


My first reaction was if the deceased’s wishes were expressed clearly in their will then they should be respected. However I then thought, if the child of the family is in need, and the family has resources ,since the mother (or father) chose to bring a child into this world they have a responsibility to them. So even ne’er do wells (sounds a bit old fashioned) still should have family support to help keep the burden off the state. This should apply in life as well as after.


I believe that was part of the judges’ rationale in making their decision in this case.


First of all, unless the daughter at aged 54 has a disability of some kind she is no longer a dependent, she is an adult so I don’t see how The Family and Dependency Law Act 1975 is relevant in this case. And where does the husband and father of her 5 children fit into this? He too stands to benefit from his late mother-in-laws estate. If it is true they are both living on benefits, why should the deceased mothers estate compensate the taxpayer when to all intent and purposes her husband who she eloped with at 17 should be contributing to financially support his family. Their 5 children must be adults by now anyway so their mother should be able to find work.

A life on benefits is not something any parent wants for their children and the mother in this case must have been trying to protect her daughter at the time of her elopement in the absence of the father she never knew. Rightly or wrongly this case could set a precedent for future claims to be made and can prevent other people from leaving their money to where they want it to go.


You have put your finger on the root of the problem with this case Beryl. It had been widely assumed that this legislation was really only for the protection of minors and it has been hailed or condemned [depending on your point of view] as a “landmark judgment” because the various judges held that even grown-up children long estranged had some entitlement to provision from a parent’s estate in particular circumstances and in defiance of a reasoned will. If it reaches the Supreme Court the judges there will have to consider whether that really was Parliament’s intention.

Maria says:
5 August 2015

Hi Beryl,

It is also telling that the mother also by-passed her grand-children who presumably never visited their grandma either.

I do hope the charities take it further, to the Supreme Court as I know for a fact, that the Red Cross is always appealing to people to leave them some cash in their wills. This ruling will come as a big blow to them, when the flood-gates come out. Which they will, as it always happens when a door like this is opened.


There must be a missing link that was never disclosed regarding the daughters personal circumstances to sway the judges decision under The Family Dependency Act which could be disclosed if it went to the Supreme Court John, but that is a matter for the charities to decide whether to proceed further. In light of this probability I would be very surprised if they did.


Thinking back to where heir hunting comes into the picture, one of the consequences of modern wealth creation is that so much of people’s estate value is tied up in property that they occupy which means that it cannot be used progressively to support charities or help later generations with university fees or home purchase or to just give away as people feel appropriate. It then becomes available in one big lump which sets the cat among the penguins when the person passes away. I can’t work out how to do it, especially when one has survivors, but it would be great if you could make your favoured disbursements unchallenged and leave virtually nothing for the crows to peck over. I don’t expect much support from genealogical researchers for this proposition!

Maria says:
5 August 2015

John Ward,

I wonder to whom where you referring to when you said: ” and leave virtually nothing for the crows to peck over. “


In theory it should be possible to sell a reversion on the property and buy an annuity with the proceeds plus that from selling any other investments. The annuity dies with the deceased. It is a failing of the financial services industry that this cannot possibly work. For one thing, the income from an annuity isn’t much more, and may even be less, than investing directly in stocks yourself and living off the income and occasional sales.

I think the reason why this doesn’t work is because administration of anything like this is so incredibly inefficient. In addition, the tax laws make the transfer of assets incredibly inefficient also. It is much cheaper to leave them where they are.

Putting your assets in a trust with yourself as the lifetime beneficiary and your intended recipients as remaindermen also ought to work but doesn’t, because of high administrative and compliance costs (+VAT).