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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?

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?