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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?

joseph woods says:
29 June 2020

My elderly father was contacted and told he was intitled to a share in an estate along with his two sisters who he had not seen for years as they lived overseas.
he was not told the size of the estate but signed an agreement for 20% of his inheritance to go as fees.
He was then told the name of the deceased.
After a long period of no correspondence I contacted the firm and was told that everything was in progress and one of the other beneficiarys had put their name forward to make the claim and had engaged a solicitor recommended by them. This was all done without our knowledge or permission.
I asked them who the solicitor was and what his fees would be.
They said they would send a letter next day explaining everything but never did.
I would just like to warn other people in the same situation to do some research before signing up to a company that does not come recommended by other users.
If anyone is contacted by company INGRAM GARRETT & SCHOFIELD Do not have anything to do with them. Once they get you to sign up they cease correspondence and do things behind your back.
You can ingage any company you like to claim your inheritance so don’t be in a hurry do some research first. There is plenty of reputable companies out their to work on your behalf so don’t be scammed by firms like the one I have just mentioned. I was pre warned by someone else but unfortuntily did not listen. Good luck to any readers claiming an inheritance.

My nephew was left 100,000 pounds over 3yrs ago and they wont get intouch unless sending 91,00 pounds a time letter joke

I was contacted via post by one of these companies and the same day so was my sister. Because both of us had been contacted we knew it had to be legit which was confirmed after doing a little research into the company. After contacting them we were asked a lot of questions but were told nothing. The deceased name, relationship to us or the value of the estate was not provided. We were then sent paperwork for us to sign agreeing to their fee of 25% plus vat of any inheritance we receive. There was no other option but to sign.
Fast forward and the estate is actually worth £350,000 and the family finders stand to make around £100,000 out of it. There are 12 beneficiaries all together all of which have signed with this company as they weren’t given any other option.
It seems so unfair that they can benefit in this way and in no way can this amount be proportionate with the amount of work they did. I provided the names of most of the other beneficiaries to them which I now regret hugely.
Feel completely conned!!

Donna – I can understand your annoyance that the heir hunters are skimming the cream off your relative’s estate, but unless you had signed up to them you would not have been able to get any of your inheritance. Disregarding any liability that might still arise for inheritance tax on the estate, this way each of the twelve inheritors will get over £20,000.

You rue the fact that you informed the company of many of the other beneficiaries, perhaps thinking – with the benefit of hindsight – that you might have stood to gain more by not doing so . . . but that might not necessarily have been the case. You did the honest and decent thing; if the company had found out about the others through their continued enquiries, and discovered that you had known of their existence, that could have put you in an awkward position in several ways.

The fact is that people who were not sufficiently close to somebody to be aware of their death are now able to receive a portion of their considerable estate for virtually no effort on their part. The heir hunters speculated that the estate would bear fruit, carried out a tracing exercise involving research and enquiries, managed to join the dots together, and provided you with an entitlement to a windfall.

I share your concern that a 25% commission rate is high and that it is ‘costing’ the twelve inheritors over £7,000 each to obtain their due proceeds of an unknown-about estate. You wrote that “It seems so unfair that they can benefit in this way and in no way can this amount be proportionate with the amount of work they did”. You will probably never know how much work was involved and it could all have been to no avail. That was a risk the company took.

Sadly, I cannot see any alternative approach unless relatives and other beneficiaries kept in contact with the person who died, a proper Will was made and registered, the executor is aware of all the beneficiaries, and the Will is produced to those entitled to know its contents. This is what happens in the vast majority of Wills and estates and there is no opportunity for an external party to take a cut. You will get something, but it won’t be as much as the deceased might have intended. Even without heir hunters involved, the legal costs of probate, taxation and executorship can drain considerable sums from an estate.