/ 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?

Comments
Member

I am MD of Finders, one of the companies interviewed by Which? for their article. Firstly I should point out that we offer four different fee options, two based on a percentage contingency fee and two based on a fee chargeable to the main estate. Whilst the article focuses on what may be cheaper for the consumer it fails to go into the detail required to understand exactly what the job of the professional probate genealogist, or ‘heir hunter’ entails. The contingency fees are only charged when an estate is distributed, often a year or more after we start work. The incentive is to find everyone entitled otherwise we do not receive anything at all for our work. Often if the solicitor knows of one or two heirs to an estate, but others are missing or unknown they opt for a contingency fee because to is charged to the formerly unknown heirs and does not deplete the shares of those who knew the Deceased all along. The ‘new’ heirs receive a windfall minus our commission fee. When working with solicitors we always offer to set a percentage fee limit in advance so we cannot invent the percentage on a whim. We have had many referrals from solicitors who have tired of using a fee based firm, complaining that they offer no choice other than to submit to their high hourly rate with no promise of a result. In fact, you could argue that the only incentive with a time based fee is to use up more time and thus more of the estate’s money. We have seen bills of tens of thousands of pounds from another firm who works in this way. Finders have been encouraged by the pro-contingency fee views expressed by Lord Justice Jackson and have had our fee options checked and approved by a leading QC. We offer legal back and numerous add-on services for probate lawyers are approved by a leading insurer and registered with the FSA for insurance business. We also have our own Professional Conduct Code and are members of the Association of Professional Genealogists who have a Code of Ethics. I find the sensationalist story mentioned above unbelievable; I have never heard this story before and we don’t know what, if anything the heir hunter concerned actually received. There are rogue traders in all walks of life, but I do not feel that tarring us all with one brush and promoting cutting us out after all our hard work is a responsible way forward. We encourage heirs to talk to us and offer them free legal advice, but we are also running a (respectable) business and of course need to make a profit in order to keep re-uniting heirs with unheard of inheritances in the future. Daniel Curran, MD & Founder of Finders International Probate Genealogists of London.

Member
Jon says:
19 July 2011

Beware hourly rates!

I advise Finders and am shocked at the article. It swallows whole the suggestion that being charged an hourly rate is in some way a good thing. We co-operated extensively with Cathy, and we feel certain that she is an excellent journalist. At the same time, it seems clear that if readers sign up to an hourly rate deal, they are at risk of receiving an unlimited bill. We’ve heard some bad stories about this.

The beauty of fees which relate to the value of the estate is that they will always be proportionate, not extortionate. By their nature they will relate to the ability to pay and will promote access to your inheritance.

Member

My company, Celtic Research works almost exclusively on Treasury Solicitor cases which are normally advertised weekly. Over the past few years fees charged by the various reputable companies have been well under the 40% mentioned above and indeed I have no idea who, if anyone, could have charged such a fee.

If we are working on an advertised case from the TS it is obviously impossible for us to negociate an hourly fee as there is no administrator in place to agree to such a fee. The only solution is a contingency fee which is fair to all parties.

Member
A. D. Thomas says:
30 September 2011

I’m very Interested to hear your comment Mr Birchwood of Celtic Research, as your company has quoted contingency fees of 25% plus vat which work out at 30% of each beneficiaries share. On an overall estate of for example £150,000 (not unrealistic if a property is involved) Celtic Research’s contingency fee would be around £45,000. Any reasonable person would consider this rather excessive. For contingency fees to be fair to all contingency fees should be capped for example at 10% INCLUDING vat.

Member

In the course of our research we came across a number of examples where the heir would have been charged way more for the work of an heir-hunter firm using a high percentage fee that if the same work had been charged on an hourly basis and where the heir was not given all the facts about the case.

In the 40% fee example mentioned above, the estate was worth £240,000 but the heir-hunter firm sent the heirs a bill for £150,000, which would leave them with just £64,000 after all the other costs involved.

We are also aware of firms charging fees of 25% plus VAT.

It’s not always the percentage fees themselves that are the problem but the size of the percentages, especially when the heir is not given all the information they need to be able to make an informed decision about whether the fee is fair.

It is claimed that percentage fees are the only option in cases where there is no administrator but it’s not clear why this means that the fees charged should be excessive. Other firms have also been able to find ways around this.

There are of course good and bad firms working in this market but we have heard of too many examples of questionable practice to be able to give the industry a clean bill of health across the board.

Member

Your limited research, with respect, hardly compares to my 21 years actual experience in probate genealogy and 13 years of running Finders. You have missed the point completely that hourly rates can easily, and often do, amount to more than contingency fee rates would have been. I have numerous reports copied to me where the main fee-based company have charged tens of thousands of pounds on hourly paid research where the contingency fee option would have cost considerably less. The contingency fee model involves risk and the potential of receiving nothing at all, the fee based researcher prefers the security of their hourly rate. We offer both. You are repeatedly quoting one case where a high fee was sought by an unknown rogue trader, the only example of this kind I have ever heard of in 20 years, which I think puts it into context. Unfortunately the BBC series has inspired a wave of scams and people working from home with no idea of what they are getting into. It is a shame you do not focus more on differentiating between rogue traders and true professionals. When advising your readers to go to a solicitor you should also warn them that the average inheritance, once distributed to all heirs, amounts to less than £1,000 each. On an individual level therefore a 25% fee would be £250. If the heir follows your advice and employs to a lawyer for advice who then pays for a genealogist to assist I think you will find 95% of your readers will end up with a large debt.

Member
Maria says:
5 December 2013

If you are telling the truth about companies charging 40% Name the company Cathy, saying the truth is not libelous.

Member

Ever since I started watching Heir Hunters, I have wondered how they make a profit in such a labour intensive industry with a high amount of abortive work.

There is, however, opportunity to take advantage of the vulnerable and no reason to treat it differently from any other financial service and leave it without appropriate regulation.

An issue, perhaps, for Which? input into the future of the FSA’s operations?

Member
Stephen Phillips says:
20 July 2011

This is a shallow, sensationalist article, relying on the eye-popping 40% commission rate that the journalist has “heard of” to appeal to those with an appetite for scandal. Greater competition has pushed commission rates down to an average that is between 5 and 20%. In addition, most estates are considerably smaller than the £250,000 quoted and a well-balanced piece might have pointed out that contingency fees can often equate to an hourly rate that is very small indeed.

Member
David says:
20 July 2011

It’s not an hourly rate v percentage debate. It’s about being aware that you can be ripped off either way by the rogue element in the industry. In the example in the article it’s the percentage v level of work being pointed out. (Come on, you must admit 150K is a least ten times too much)

Just because there may be a small proportion of ‘Rogue’ heir hunters doesn’t mean it’s right. One is too many.

@FINDERS – Your approach sounds great, but not every potential beneficiary has the luxury of choice when they get that knock at the door.

Member
Peter Turvey says:
21 July 2011

What shoddy, half-baked reporting! Is she ex-News of the World? The sub-standard article is so poorly produced as to be laughable. We all know that there’s a rogue research firm that adopts a quasi-legal stance and puts out misleading ‘facts’ about our industry (whilst sneakily colluding with solicitors to rip off beneficiaries). This lazy article simply regurgitates the mis-information – the same phrases, the same ‘facts’.

Cathy Neal has the cheek to call herself a researcher – she wouldn’t last 5 minutes in my firm!

Peter Turvey, Managing Director, Anglia Research.

Member
Paul says:
21 July 2011

So why aren’t you in your industry doing something about this rogue. You could name and shame and maybe save someone from being ripped off

Member
james says:
9 October 2012

she probably wouldnt last 5 mins because she is too honest.

Member

We’re very keen to welcome companies as commenters on this site and to hear their responses to our investigations, however I have to give a formal warning that comments are now not meeting our commenting guidelines.

There is no need to make personal, harassing and even potentially libellous comments about individual researchers – in the interest of fairness we will leave the comments made so far, but any further comments of this nature will be removed.

This topic has been researched thoroughly and we believe we’ve produced a balanced and fair article. Any companies who would like to see a copy can contact us and we will happily email you the article in full.

In the meantime, let’s get back on topic and quit the personal attacks. It would be good to hear any personal account from heirs who may have experiences of heir hunter companies…

Member

Entirely agree with Hannah. As a Which? researcher working on solicitors’ services in 1970 I saw many such comments. Have heir hunters now adopted the arrogance that solicitors then had? If so it hardens my view that they should be treated as finacial services providers and made subject to external regulation. Better start working for it now – it only took 35 years to end self-regulation for lawyers. Perhaps Ian Marson would like to take up the challenge and say what sort of regulatory structure he would like to see for heir hunters.

Member
Maria says:
5 December 2013

It is not a balanced article at all, because unfortunately it has not been researched properly, in fact, I think it is libelous ! The whole point of doing the T.V. show was to make the public aware how we work and the competition out there it is so fierce, that a so called 40% would always be beaten by any other firm charging much much less, as far as I’m aware NO one charges that much. I also see in the article written above that you can simply walk in the Treasury Solicitor’s office and claim your money very easily when in fact, even the Treasury has appeared on T.V. saying that an heir has to provide a family tree to prove their relationship to the deceased. Another thing is that an heir even if they read the Treasury list with all the names written there, they might not be aware that they are related to the deceased as it might be a long lost relative and this is best done by a professionals who are initially not charging you for their very long hours of work and once there is a contingency fee with the heirs, where they agree to pay the “Heir hunter’s ” fees if the case is successful, a responsible firm will also do the administration at no extra cost to the heirs, this involves paying lawyers out of the pocket of the heir hunter’s firm. Doing the administration often involves defending a property on behalf of the heirs at no extra cost to them against squatters who often vandalize the property, Fortunately, the laws have now been changed by the government and it will be easier in the future to evict the squatters but before this law was changed, it has in the past, taken as much as THREE years to evict someone before the property can be finally sold and recover the money from the sale for the heirs and also recuperate the money that heir hunters had to pay to the lawyers. I don’t know of any industry out there where they have to wait for three long years to finally get paid. On the next Heir Hunter’s show there will be one of these cases shown.

Member
Steven V says:
21 July 2011

The ‘facts’ reported in this article are very much out of date. The industry simply doesn’t work like that anymore.

Member

We’ve spoken to heirs who have been contacted in the last few months by heir-hunter firms that work in this way so sadly it seems that in some quarters it does.

Member
Maria says:
5 December 2013

Cathy I would love to know the name of these companies.

Member
Maria says:
5 December 2013

Isn’t that what supposedly the Which ? magazine is supposed to do ? to tell consumers which companies are best. You would do a great service if you tell us which heir hunters company is charging 40% It is not libelous if you are telling the truth Cathy. Leaving it up in the air without naming and shaming this company, people will assume all companies charge 40% which is not true.
If you do not name this company I will not believe anything written on the Which ? magazine ever again.

Member
Dave says:
5 December 2013
Member

In the Which? Money article (from 2011) we said that we had spoken to people who had been contacted by Fraser & Fraser and Hoopers – both were quoted contingency fees of 25% + VAT.

We didn’t name the company that quoted 40% in the article because at the time the individual involved was still going through a legal process with the firm to challenge the charges. However, we saw evidence at the time that this happened.

Member

Name away Cathy….

At the moment it would be accurate to say their commission was 100% because they have not paid a penny.

Member

Maria did not like my suggestion (on page 5 of this discussion) that money should go into public funds to benefit everyone if heirs had not bothered to keep in touch with the deceased.

From what Cathy, Dave and others have told us, there are some serious problems in the industry and I’m even more convinced that the best way to use the money is for public benefit.

Member
Ian Marson says:
21 July 2011

I would take issue with the comment by Hannah Joliffe about whether this topic was researched fully. I was approached by Dean Sobers from Which about this article some time ago but since I do not generally undertake Heir Hunting work I responded as Chairman of AGRA (The Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives). AGRA is the only organisation in England and Wales that represents Genealogists and promotes standards and ethics in research practice, we also have a partner organisation in Scotland (ASGRA). It was founded in 1968 and membership is only open to those who can prove professional competence.

I was surprised therefore that Which chose to publish this article and never had the decency to acknowledge my reply to their initial email let alone discuss with me any medium for promoting standards in research or how a researcher can prove that they have professional competence. I also know from the feedback I have had from our members that Which failed to contact them about this investigation and I can only surmise therefore that Which has been selective on what organisations it chose to partake in the survey.

AGRA has many members who are Probate Genealogists and whilst we are not a regulatory body we do ensure that our members abide by a strict code of practice and when things do go wrong we have a complaints procedure and can mediate between Client and Researcher. I can say that it is many years since we have had any complaints about our heir hunting researchers.

As an organisation we do have concerns over a growth in the number of people offering professional research services with no experience other than having traced their own family history, I have had many enquiries from would be researchers asking for advice on how to start heir hunting, clearly with no knowledge of probate law or basic research practice. Most of these enquiries come as a result of the BBC heir hunters programme on TV which does nothing to portray a true perspective of probate genealogy.

There are well established reputable companies in the probate genealogy field but Which has not given them a fair hearing.

I should point out that AGRA is not a research organisation and as such we do not undertake or employ researchers.

Ian F. Marson
Chairman
AGRA
http://www.agra.org.uk

Member

Hi Ian – I will contact you separately about this but we did mention AGRA in the magazine article.

The magazine article was focusing on the types of companies that approach heirs directly and designed to warn heirs that some charge excessive fees to allow them to make an informed decision about whether to sign up with them or not. AGRA members work differently to this.

We approached all the companies we had been contacted about and were able to find online but a number of them were not willing to provide us with information about their fees or send us examples of the letters and contracts they give or send to heirs.

Member

Cathy, I am worried that you don’t understand the situation. AGRA membership does not mean that their ‘members work differently to this’. It simply means that they belong to AGRA and are supposed to follow their rules, but it is no guarantee. AGRA is not a regulatory body. Finders chose to join the worldwide organisation APG (Association of Professional Genealogists) instead, who have a Code of Ethics – it appears that you did not contact the APG either? Neither has any regulatory control over their members other than to expel them if they are proven to have acted contrary to their rules, but this will not stop anyone trading in any event. It was not revealed that Title Research (who Which? researched) have twice been ruled against by the Advertising Standards Authority in recent years for misleading advertising. Finders have never had any such problems. I have written seperately to Cathy and I hope to have the courtesy of a reply soon.

Member
Susan says:
21 July 2011

I am currently trying to decide how to proceed, having been approached by an “heir hunter”. What has frustrated me for weeks is the almost TOTAL lack of information on how to obtain your inheritance without using a third party. Which? states that you would it, without deduction, anyway, “even if you did nothing”. But how does this work for estates on the Bona Vacantia? I have sent the proof of lineage to the Treasury Solicitor but they will not tell me how to proceed except that I can either use my solicitor or they will release the small inheritance total “under an indemnity”. I can only assume that, if I didn’t want to pay for a solicitor then I would have to trace ALL the heirs and distribute the money. In other words, how do you proceed if there isn’t, yet, an administrator?
It all seems designed to drive you into the arms of the heir hunter or the hourly rates of a solicitor. So, Which?, this is an area where advice is sorely needed. I rang the Which? Legal advice line and they knew very little about it. Potentailly, this is an area that could be the most expensive comsumer issue of all!

Member

Hi Susan. It’s not always a bad idea to use a third party – the key is that you are given enough information about the estate, the deceased and how much the final fee will be to enable you to make a decision about whether you are happy to go with that particular firm.

If you employ a solicitor they may in turn employ an heir-hunter firm but can look for one charging a reasonable rate. However, if the estate is very small, this may not be worthwhile.

All the heirs do need to be found but who you use to do the work or whether you try to track them down yourself very much depends on the circumstances.

Member
Maria says:
5 December 2013

The heir Susan above is more informed than you are Cathy.
Before the firm of Genealogists contacts an heir, they have already done an extensive family tree and located where she lives as well as the rest of her family. If Susan signs a contract with an ” Heir Hunter ” firm she doesn’t have to worry about doing her own family tree and she doesn’t have to do the administration work either, ( this involves a year or more ) as it is all being done for her and if for some reason she doesn’t benefit from the estate, then she doesn’t have to pay a penny for the Heir Hunter’s services but she gets a free family tree. If on the other hand, she does benefit, then it is only fair that the Heir Hunter’s fee should be paid for their services don’t you think ?

Member
Maria says:
5 December 2013

Yes, that is right. You will have to trace all your relatives yourself without leaving anyone out, if you do leave someone out through inexperience and they find out later, you are liable to be sued by your own relatives, this is why it is recommended that you take an indemnity insurance policy which are expensive, plus it will take you a year to administrate the case and prove to the Treasury Solicitor that you are a genuine heir and how exactly its your relationship to the deceased, you could find that there are closer heirs to yourself in the course of your investigation and get nothing out of it. It happens… and of course, you don’t know how much the estate its worth until you have provided the Treasury with all your work and it might turn out that you would have spent a lot more than you are actually going to get out of it. Its a risky business. Good luck !

Member
WindyCityNorth says:
8 December 2013

Maria, no you don’t have to trace all your relatives ! I didn’t and received %100 …….NOT A DIME WAS PAID TO THE HEIR HUNTERS …except perhaps the lump sum paid by the solicitors to hire the Heir Hunters. Just refuse the heir hunters their percentage and you too will receive %100.

[This comment has been edited for breaking our guidelines. Thanks, mods.]