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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?


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).

Hello Maria

I was just looking around for a nice word for scavengers. I saw that ‘vultures’ had already been used. I was thinking mainly of the family hangers-on who seem to come out of the woodwork when a ‘loved one’ dies and there is a sudden upturn in their closeness. Unexpected deaths catch them on the hop.

Fortunately I have only read about this and never known of an actual case of people turning up when someone is approaching the end of their life. I would quite like to modify my will to ensure that no heir hunter can possibly receive a penny.

Heir hunters feed off the estates of people who die without leaving a will, so if you have made a will [and kept it up to date] you can rest in peace. This latest disinheritance case has highlighted, however, how an unregarded 40-year old piece of legislation can, in certain circumstances, turn over someone’s legacies.

Maria says:
7 August 2015

Wavechanger. Probate Resarchers or commonly known as Heir Hunters can and have also worked on WILLS too. For instance, a deceased person died leaving everything to her sister and her best friend but when she died, her sister had predeceased her and her best friend had moved to another country so the solicitor handling the estate contacted the Probate Research company as he was at his wits end how to solve this case. Our company found out her sister had two daughters leaving in the east coast of the U.S. so they were contacted and the deceased best friend, we tracked her in Israel, so we helped to fulfil the deceased wishes. You should watch the T.V. programme: Heir Hunters which is being shown on BBC 1 this morning. Today, is the last episode of the series which has been running for nine years. It is informative and will instruct you exactly how this business works.

Maria says:
7 August 2015

A probate company finds missing beneficiaries just like a detective but we also do family trees to locate the heirs and unlike a detective a Probate Researcher company does not ask for money upfront. You should watch the Heir Hunter T.V. programme on BB1 at 11:30 this morning. to illuminate yourself and not live in ignorance.

We volunteered to appear on the BBC to educate the public about our business. I doubt very much that the BBC would be promoting crows or vultures. On the contrary. the BBC are so impressed with what we do, that they have been airing this programme for 9 years and it is still going, in fact, the Heir Hunters programme was even been nominated for an award for best documentary.

[This comment has been edited for breaking our community guidelines. Please don’t make your comments personal. Thanks, mods.]

Thank you Maria. I shall let the viewers and readers be the judge.

Maria, I would certainly be very wary of judging any company by its appearance in TV series. Your unprofessional response to John Ward does not help your cause either.

Wavechange would quite like to modify his will to ensure that no heir hunter can possibly receive a penny.

I don’t think it is possible to modify a will to prevent specific classes of people contesting it. A solicitor will always advise that you can’t insert a clause that denies people their legal rights. After all, such a modification would be asking the legal process to destroy itself, at least in the instance of that particular will.

Your rights about your own property are being denied, but conflict is in the best interest of the profession as a whole which exists to resolve conflict. If you write a will that explicitly resolves conflict in this particular way, it is unlikely to be accepted by a probate court.

There may be instance of this sort of thing in fiction, but not all fiction is written with expert legal knowledge or advice. Ideas are often copied from other fiction, and at best may receive informal advice from lawyers who are friends of the author. Indeed the earning of the average crime author for a particular book would not cover the cost of such advice. (An exceptionally best selling author might afford it, and some novels are written by practising lawyers.)

Thanks John de Rivaz. You are right, of course. I just don’t have any respect for heir hunters and this long running Conversation has certainly not made me better disposed towards them. I still don’t know what regulation exists in the sector.

Hello, just a reminder that if you are ever concerned about a comment please use the ‘report’ button to let us know, rather than posting rude comments to others.

We’re here to debate heir hunters, whether it’s positive or negative, so please try and respect others views even if you disagree with them.

To others, please try to choose your words carefully to ensure you don’t offend others. Thanks.

Read our commenting guidelines for more: https://conversation.which.co.uk/commenting-guidelines/

Maria says:
13 August 2015

Hello Patrick,

Perhaps you should edit part of John’s comment where he refers to Probate Researchers ( Heir Hunters ) as ” Vultures ” or ” crows” flying around waiting for someone to die or words to that effect.

I’m the only one of my colleagues commenting here, so really if I had ANY sense I would go away and then you wouldn’t have anyone to shoot darts at, with your provocative title: ” Are Heir Hunters cheating you out of your money ” The answer is NO. Since it is NOT their money. We try to rescue it from the government. Sometimes we succeed other times we don’t, it is not a sure thing. None of my other colleagues cares a hoot about this misleading title that you have in the WITCH magazine because thanks to the BBC T.V. programme “Heir Hunters” people are better informed about exactly what we do and how we do it and also how we help to RE-UNITES FAMILIES WHO HAD LOST TOUCH because their families moved elsewhere looking for work, or lost touch during the war, or re-located to the U.S. or Australia or New Zealand there is a myriad of reasons why they lost touch. The show its such a success with the public, that the producers have called us yesterday to tell us that the BBC new boss wants to have more new film episodes and so we have to be prepared for filming again by September. This will be our 10th year filming for the BBC and they have not found ANY improprieties otherwise, they would have pulled it out years ago. The producers told us that the Heir Hunter’s programme had been such a success that even their commercial rivals have tried to do something similar not related to inheritance but just women who for some reason or another, given up their children in adoption and have been re-united through their programme which was based on a similar film, portrayed with the actress Judy Dench about an Irish woman whose child was given up on adoption by her mother and this was done unbeknown to her, she was told that her child died during the birth but for a quirk of life she found out that her son hadn’t died at birth so she longed to meet him, by the time she finally located him with the aid of a well known British investigative journalist her son had already died of aids. Her son had been working for one of the American President’s I can’t remember which one, probably Clinton. Anyhow… I also expect to be treated with respect as well. I know that this conversation is BIAS because of the title and because you allow other people to insult me and my colleagues whilst their comments have not been withdrawn. Well, I haven’t checked yet of the comment of the ” vultures” or “crows” is still there or not. Which I would like to be taken off, otherwise I will have to continue to defend myself and my colleagues, anyway I can.


For the record, in response to Maria’s initial questioning of my use of the word “crows”, I made it clear that I was referring to “family hangers-on”. I did not use that term to describe heir hunters, nor did I use the word “vultures”. I avoided that word because Maria had already used it.

I respect Maria’s opinions; sometimes I agree with them and sometimes I don’t, but she has the right to express them in a responsible manner.

I see nothing wrong with the Heir Hunters programme. The government provides the opportunity for probate researchers to carry out heir work on unclaimed estates and for the most part they due it with great diligence and there is no doubt they have brought unexpected windfalls to thousands of people.

Thanks for your comments John. If you sold up and invested the proceeds you would have to be very careful in setting aside enough from the income to pay the rent on a property to live in for an unpredictable duration. The benefit of an equity release scheme is that at least you can continue to occupy the property. The lack of future certainty is why the returns on annuities and equity release schemes are so unattractive.

John – Problems arise when wills cannot be found or have not been kept up to date. After my father died, we did not think we were going to find my father’s will because the solicitor had changed hands and moved a couple of times in the past twenty years. At the time I remember reading about the number of wills that are never found.

Maria – As I have said before, I would like to see money go to the government if families don’t keep in touch. It could help to support our National Health Service, which is struggling because of the number of people who are living longer.

John – My post was intended to be a response to your earlier post. I’m not sure either of are wanted here. 🙁

wavechange, when the NHS appears to lack any purchasing acumen, allowing a drug supplier to raise its prices from £2M to £40M unchallenged for example, (and what else lies between the tip of this iceberg?) I’d be wary of inadvertently leaving my money to be thus wasted. I am also cynical at the activities and organisation of charities, particularly large ones.I’ll keep my wealth out of their hands.

You never know how money has been generated within families, who has left what to whom in the past, who has participated directly or indirectly in the accumulation of wealth. So in my view money within a family should stay within a family.

Wavechange . . . and my bit at the top of this little thread was supposed to follow a comment by John de Rivaz dated 6 Aug 2015 [5:08 pm] but I neglected to type it as a Reply, so this Conversation has lost its way a little bit in this section. You and I might share contrary views on some aspects but it’s been a lively and interesting Conversation overall reflecting the strong feelings that this issue arouses. It’s been some time since I last watched an episode of Heir Hunters so I have set the recorder to catch it.

It’s a good job that the CMA is keeping an eye on the problem, but goodness knows what the drug companies get away with and none of us are any the wiser. I share your concerns about charities and wonder why some charities are having to do work that should be funded by taxation.

It’s relevant to say that I am appalled by the general obsession with money and that every day we are moving back to a society where the difference between rich and poor becomes greater. The wealth of families is perpetuated by inheritance. We should be proud to pay IHT, in the knowledge that it does a little to redistribute wealth.

IHT doesn’t redistribute wealth. It concentrates it into the hand of government for their social experiments. If politicians wanted wealth redistributed, they would enact tax laws such that if you left a lot to one person, then there is a tax penalty, but if you leave a little to lots of people then you avoid paying a penalty on the proceeds of your Will.

I don’t think Inheritance Tax was ever about the redistribution of wealth – it is just a tax the proceeds of which are absorbed in Exchequer revenues and used for government expenditure of all kinds. It used to be called ‘death duty’ and it was just seen as a relatively painless way for the government to obtain money from accumulated wealth; ‘painless’ in the sense that it didn’t deprive anyone of any income they had previously enjoyed.

If there were no IHT and beneficiaries received the full value of estates, the Exchequer would still benefit as the recipients spent their inheritance or saved it and earned interest, but to nothing like the same extent and there would be virtually no return from any bequests to charities. So taking IHT off estates [over the threshold] at 40% before distribution is a highly efficient tax gathering mechanism. Without it government revenue would have to be found from other sources.

I am not saying I like IHT but the alternatives could be worse for more people since IHT is only obtained from the wealthy.

I have watched Heir Hunters many times on BBC TV and confess to having a problem with legacies going to people who have had little or no contact for years and in some cases were unaware of their deceased relatives existence even. I partly agree with Wavechange’s suggestion that the money should go to the government but it should then passed on to charitable organizations. Our NHS is struggling because it is paying huge sums of taxpayers money to private companies and their shareholders for PFI’s loans and private practice.

John W – may I suggest you make contact with the RSPB who could assist you when next time you are in doubt about differentiating between feathered species 🙂

Thanks Beryl. I now realise I have caused great offence to the Corvidae family by impugning their intelligence and ingenuity in securing their livelihood, for which I most humbly apologise. I must have been having a Condor moment.

Good point Beryl. We need to make sure money public money is used effectively.

Maria says:
7 August 2015

Beryl but it does go to the government since there are thousands of cases where Heir Hunters are unable to find the heirs and after 15 years, if no heirs are found it all goes to the government. Besides, there are taxes to pay on an estate, so that also goes to the government, we pay taxes, which also, go to the government. I really think it is good for the relatives of a deceased person to have the cash. Why not ? Why according to you, ALL of the money should go to the government like if they manage it properly. Only a few days ago, I read an article which I happen to have at hand this title appeared: HOW the clinton’s charities got £50 Million of british aid cash..

” TENS of millions of pounds of U.K. aid money has been siphoned through charities linked to Hillary Clinton, it emerged last night. British politicians including Gordon Brown-stand accused of diverting huge amounts of cash through the organizations after falling under the spell of the U.S. presidential candidate and her husband Bill. At least £50million of tax-payer funded foreign aid money has gone to Clinton charities, which are at the centre of allegations in the U.S. that foreign governments used donations to buy influence. The U.K. is one of the biggest donors, handing over more than £20 million last year alone to the Clinton Health Access Initiative ( CHAI ) an organization chaired by former President Bill, 68, and whose board includes the couple’s daughter Chelsey, 35. Since 2011, a total of £48.9 million has gone into the coffers of this charity alone.

Tory backbenchers say the revelation is symptomatic of the fact that the Department for International Development has so much money to spend that large amounts simply have to be handed over to global charities, often leading to huge amounts of waste.
The Clinton charities, are involved in running projects receiving some £107 millions of the Department for International Development since 2009–Although not all this money went to their organisations. But critics are concerned that waste of CHAI is so high, that British tax payers may end up paying millions of pounds of management charges – money which they say would be better spent on front-line disaster relief. Britain spends £12 BILLION a year on overseas aid, thanks to a new law which commits the government to spending 0.7 per cent of national income on international development. CHAI spends its funds on improving the treatment of HIV/Aids, malaria and tuberculosis in the developing world, mainly in Africa.

But an explosive new book claimed that foreign governments and individuals received favourable treatment from the U.S. government in return for donations to the Clinton family charities. The revelations have proved an embarrassment for Hillary Clinton, 67, who has moved to distance herself from the charities after announcing she will run for the presidency.
The Clinton Foundation, the main family charity revealed that the U.K. government has been making donations since the following year – when Hillary Clinton took office as U.S. Secretary of State.

The U.K.s donations to the Clinton charities took off after the Secretary of the International development Andrew Mitchel met Hillary Clinton at a U.N. summit in New York in 2010.
An examination of published payments in 2014 reveals that CHAI received £20.2 million In 2013 £13.1 Million was handed over, with £9.6 million going to CHAI in 2012 and 1.1 million in 2011.
Before this date there are no published figures.

Philip Davies the Tory MP for Shipley, said: ‘ The fact we are spending more and more on aid when we are massively in debt is bad enough, but when it is being tossed away for vanity reasons to ingratiate U.K. politicians with the rich and powerful in the U.S. .. I think most people would find that distasteful and unacceptable. ‘

Jonathan Isaby, of the Tax-Payers’ Alliance said: ‘ The ludicrous aid target means all too often the Department of International Development officials are desperate to spend money in any way they can, which is nothing more than irresponsible. We need the Dept of International Development officials to be more transparent ‘

The Department for International Development offered no explanation for its decision to channel funds through the Clinton charities.

Maria says:
12 August 2015


You and the other two who criticise heir hunters seem to think that we are somehow stealing money from heirs via our percentage. But we have not got your money. We are not saying: ” We have some money of yours but you can’t have ii until you sign with us “. What we are saying is: ” The government has your money but won’t let you have it unless you can prove is yours.

We have worked out how you can prove it and agree to give us a percentage. Most times the heirs never knew they were heirs until we came along, and wouldn’t have a clue as to who has died and how they are related ” – What are we supposed to do ? Spend all our time working for free ?

I think you have interpreted the position well as regards the role of heir hunters. As I have said in much earlier parts of this Conversation, there is a lot of potentially unremunerative work involved in proving entitlements, some of which bears no fruit at all, so there is no alternative to cross-subsidising the work in the same way that estate agents and other speculator intermediaries operate. There is nothing wrong with that in my opinion and nobody is obliged to sign up, and if they do choose to do so they don’t have to put any money down there and then.

What I think some of us criticise is the system that allows this resource to be exploited for so long after the death of the individual who not only left no will [whether intentionally or unintentionally] but whose far-flung relatives ” never knew they were heirs until we came along, and wouldn’t have a clue as to who has died and how they are related”. And the TV programmes demonstrate clearly how far the net has to be cast, and how many investigators have to race in parallel to pursue the family lines, knowing that other heir hunters are also hot on their heels.

I watched a short bit of one episode of Heir Hunters this morning and one of the office-bound agents was heard saying over the phone to a travelling investigator something like “this sister is old and frail so I want to get more information and confirmation before we start harassing her”. Jolly decent of him, of course, but it illustrates the culture that some of us think is inappropriate.

Maria – I agree that governments should “handle it properly” inasmuchas the money should go to genuine worthy causes. If people die intestate they do not care enough or wish to leave their assets to anyone in particular. Unknown distant relatives therefore are not entitled to it in my opinion and neither is anyone else ‘acting on their behalf.’

If inheritance researchers wish to make a living from it, so be it, and I understand your concerns if all of the money went straight to Government to be distributed among charitable organizations. There would be no need for heir hunters, unless of course they continued to carry on with their research and passed all the proceeds over to the State for charitable causes and receive commission for their time and effort.

I have not seen any real evidence, only speculation of impropriety in the Clinton Camp but I find it inconceivable that anyone contemplating running for the ‘top job’ such as President of the USA would wish to engage in unethical and dishonest practice, there is far too much at stake.

Many politicians are corrupt and in the pocket of wealthy organisations. I don’t imagine it is any different in the “top job” as you put it. 🙂

With reference to your third paragraph, it was not the last government [under David Cameron] that brought us the 2003 Iraq war, nor even the one before the last [under Gordon Brown].

Maria, you clearly hold strong, opinions which is good to fuel a conversation. Some hold contrary opinions. This all helps others, who may be less well informed, to build an overall picture of the topic and add balance. We shouldn’t rubbish contributors who we may disagree with as that may deter them from contributing – particularly those new to Conversations.

Maria your responses convey very strong feelings on this topic. In a democratic society politicians, whether you agree with them or not are voted in by you and I the electorate. The alternative is totalitarianism and I for one are thankful we don’t have to go there.

If charities are anathema to your way of thinking then maybe unclaimed inheritance could be put towards medical research where we will all benefit.

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Malcolm in any run up to an election I am sure you are aware that any sleaze or unscrupulousness hiding behind the echelons of power will be unearthed, displaying faces of more than a little touch of rosy hue 🙂

Beryl, I was thinking about one or two USA “top jobs” – and without first hand information did not consider R Nixon as whiter than White, nor Kennedy. You wonder where one or two of our ex “top jobs” gain their huge wealth – not from working 9-5. I don’t suppose power suddenly transformed their characters. However I admit to being a cynic and reading Private Eye.

In response to

>>We shouldn’t rubbish contributors who we may disagree with as that may deter them from contributing<<

I strongly agree. If one looks at those who comment on newspaper news stories about how the government (in the form of enacted legislation and the legal profession) deal with various issues, the populace often feel very dissatisfied with what is going on. This seems especially so over non criminal property transfer issues, even if the commenters are not personally concerned.

One of the main problems seems to be various unintended feedback loops that encourage behaviour that offends the British sense of justice, particularly when there is confiscation of property when no crime has been committed.

The mechanism of democracy seems weak in enabling the electorate's opinion to affect legislation and administration. The only choice is between political parties, there is no choice over what they do once they are in power. If either party seeking power has no interest in, for example the subject of this conversation (the distribution of inheritance) voting won't make any difference.

You can write to your MP and comment, but it is pure luck as to whether he agrees or not.
If they are conscientious, they may consider a problem if a lot of people write with the same grievance, but they must be aware of the power of social networking and letter writing campaigns achievable at the click of a mouse.

Malcolm, politicians as with the rest of society can never claim to be “whiter than white”. Anyone thinking themselves to be so is delusional. To quote Lord John Dalberg-Acton “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. It takes a great leader to be able to exercise the power they have inherited without falling by the wayside, as history demonstrates not all of them made it.

Politicians should be beyond reproach. Every one who fiddled their expenses should have been sacked.

I understand some of them who were found out (mostly Labour I believe) were sacked and others served time under HM pleasure.

Some very clever and deluded people (politicians included) will rationalize their behaviour in terms of “It’s OK because everyone does it”. I seem to remember a certain Mr Wogan (love him or loathe him) saying “Some people share the delusion that it is only a sin if you get found out”. Politicians maybe should heed these words, unless of course you are deluded into thinking this can never happen to you!

I think we are off topic again so will now gracefully bow out.

Maria says:
9 August 2015

Beryl that is strange. Since it is you who is advocating that all the money should go to the government and not the families of the deceased.

Well, i have to inform you that only totalitarian regimes like cuba do not allow their citizens to get an inheritance from an intestate relative abroad just totalitarian countries do that. Not democratic ones.

I’m demonstrating you with this article above, that this is precisely why no government can be trusted with all of our money and I can see that, and anyone who is intelligent enough can see that too. Politicians cannot be trusted with our cash and SOME of it should go to the relatives of a deceased person who died without a will.

Fortunately the 11 million people who watch the Heir Hunters programme will not agree with you either. Why do you think the Heir Hunter’s T.V. programme is still on air ? Why do you think the T.V. programme was even nominated for a best documentary award ? Perhaps you should watch it. I think politicians are cashing in all the time and if you think we live in a ” democratic ” country you are sadly mistaken.

Actually, you have now made me change my mind about the will that was overturned by three judges since the other possibility is that the daughter could actually proved that her mother was unreasonable in not letting her have a penny. It does happen. I knew a heartless and I really mean super heartless mother, who never forgave her daughter for marrying a man she didn’t approve of. This daughter came to see her mother on her wedding day dressed in her white beautiful wedding dress to ask or rather plead her mother to forgive her and to please come to her wedding and be with her for this important day of her life. I witness how the daughter got on her knees with tears in her eyes to forgive her and the mother kicked her out of her house. I couldn’t believe the awful shocking scene. I stopped using this woman’s services after that . So, as not knowing ALL of the information why the judges ruled in favour of the daughter and having remembered that scene of those many years ago. I will have to trust the judges who ruled in the daughter’s favour.

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I think you are misrepresenting what Beryl is suggesting, Maria.

Maria says:
12 August 2015

Philip Davies the Tory MP for Shipley, said: ‘ The fact we are spending more and more on aid when we are massively in debt is bad enough, but when it is being tossed away for Beryl,

It is wrong doing, for politicians to be bribing other politicians abroad for ” favours ” with money that it is not theirs. Since the money that the Department of International Development has, its been obtained by compulsion through taxation

I’m in no doubt now ,that you are a politician who is here trying to persuade the other three donkeys that the government should keep ALL the money. When I have clearly showed you above that a government cannot be trusted with our money. As I have also shown you above, those billions have been wasted. It is bad enough that we are massively in debt and we are on these austerity measures. Why are we in ” austerity measures ” ? Whilst billions are being wasted abroad ? Charity begins at home beryl.
Not to mention the 3 Million pounds that Cameron authorised against Civil Servants advice not to give it to this questionable ” charity ” for children who folded a week after they were awarded the cash by the stupid politicians who squander or doll away our money. Red faces in government at the moment or at least there should be as everyone with a pea brain knows politicians tend to have a hard skin and are rarely embarrassed about their mismanagement of public money.

As I have said two posts below, there are ways in which funds can be kept out of politicians’ hands and be held in trust inalienably.

Maria says:
13 August 2015


You are under the impression that we have the heirs’ money and that we won’t give it to them unless they sign with us. That is incorrect. The government has the their money but they won’t give it to them unless they can prove how they are related to the deceased and we can help them do that and also do ALL the bureaucratic work to obtain for them it in exchange for a small percentage. You are also wrongly assuming that we magically already know where the heirs are. We don’t. We have to do a thorough research first to locate the heirs Which entails having to do family trees before we can establish who are entitled to the deceased estate and AFTER THAT establish where they are living. So that is detective work which is unpaid for if the heirs decide not to sign the contract. We did try to get a detective licence from the government but we received a letter from Parliament saying they are not worried about us and that we can continue doing what we do best, the way it was operated since the 1800’s

One thing that we perhaps should do with some of the money that ends up unclaimed in the Treasury coffers is to reduce the number of people who die without having made a will. I know there are annual Will Weeks and other promotions but I think more could be done to support people and help them into and through the process. Unfortunately the will-writing business does not enjoy the smartest of reputations so work is needed there. Some charities also press too hard in my opinion and possibly put people off from making decisions. If we can reduce the number of estates with no will we can reduce the difficulties that flow from them. Not all intestate estates are a problem; usually the intestacy rules allow for an appropriate distribution of the estate’s value.

I think one thing that may discourage some people from using a solicitor to write a will is that solicitors ask for a statement of assets and then enough identity information that would enable anyone who sees it to set up a fraudulent loan in the names of the client and cause them a lot of stress and anxiety. I am not suggesting that every solicitor will do this, but it only takes one dishonest person in the chain to do it, especially if the statement of assets indicates that the victim would be seen as a good credit risk by a loan company.

I can’t see how will writing can possibly be useful to terrorists or drug dealers so this personal intrusion is not justified on grounds of logic, even though it may be fun for clerks to know everyone’s personal details.

In addition, a statement of assets isn’t needed on grounds of logic if the will simply leaves everything to be divided between beneficiaries. What it is useful for is for grooming the client into buying life insurance to pre-pay death taxes. As an inheritance is a surplus to someone’s life, if some of the money is tied up in life policies and the client’s income is reduced by the premiums, their quality of life is reduced. Of course large commissions are earned by those who set up life policies, and the client is made to believe that it is his duty to leave his affairs in order.

That is the real evil of the so called “Inheritance Tax”. It is not that people get a smaller windfall when someone dies, it is that elderly people can be groomed into worrying about it and reducing the quality of their lives. A real “Inheritance Tax” would be paid by the recipient, and all the deceased’s will could do to avoid it is to chose impoverished beneficiaries who would pay less tax on account of their financial position. But that is nothing like as much fun for the legal profession. I recall from memory about a third of parliament is comprised of solicitors at law, a much higher ratio than the electorate.

Also once the solicitor has a statement of assets, he knows if the client is wealthy and can discriminate against him by charging more for his time.

I think it’s perfectly legitimate to debate whether or not the residue of the unclaimed estates of people who made no will, whether deliberately or otherwise, should either (a) be held for ages in reserve in case somebody can be found with a proper claim it, or (b) whether after a sensible interval it should be put into a statutory trust fund for allocation for good causes – medical research, relief of poverty, social care, educational development and investment, whatever.

Without re-reading all the contributions, I don’t think anybody here has been suggesting that the money should be just transferred into Exchequer revenue [as it is now after 12 years!] or used in any way for the enrichment of individuals – politicians or otherwise. There are ways in which the government can, by statute, set up a trust organisation with suitable trustees that would have full respect and authority and hold the money inalienably. Nobody seriously considers that the Prince of Wales’s various trusts, or the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme, or any number of other beneficial bodies, are misusing their funds or are involved in any political scandals. The Treasury could still hold a reserve fund to make payments if a valid beneficiary of a bona vacantia estate was discovered up to, say, ten years after the death.

If, as a result of some uncharacteristic delinquency in our democracy, politicians are going to do bad things with public money the availability of a few millions from estates is hardly going to change things. Democracy usually ensures that good prevails. Honi soit qui mal y pense.

Contributors may be interested in the position in Scotland. If children are cut out of a parent’s will, they still have a legal right to share in the estate on the following basis: if there is a surviving spouse, the children share one third of the moveable estate (i.e. excluding land, houses etc), and if there is no surviving spouse, the children share one half of the moveable estate. A determined testator in order to avoid this would have to put all his estate into property or give it all away! So the lady in question here would have got half of the moveable estate.

Maria says:
12 August 2015

John Ward.

I very much doubt that a Probate Researcher said that they were harassing an old lady. You have invented that in an effort to try to discredit Heir Hunters. There is NO reason for harassing anyone. We have had cases where the heirs have signed four years later we sent them a contract.

After the first show aired, a young man contacted us to say that his elderly father had received a contract from us a year back and as he didn’t know about Heir Hunters, he advised his elderly father not to sign anything, just in case it was a con to extract money from him but after he saw the first episode he could see we were a legitimate business and he was happy for his father to sign the contract with us and he also said that we would receive it duly signed the next day, We had forgotten about this case and had to look for it in our file of unsigned cases. So there is NO need to harass people as you falsely claim.

[Hi Maria, we’ve had to edit your comment as it breaks our commenting guidelines. Please be polite to other commenters and talk to them as you wish to be spoken to. And please do not write sentences all in caps. Thanks, mods.]

I am sorry to say, Maria, that in the Heir Hunters programme broadcast on BBC2 at 7.30 am today there was a conversation over the phone between a probate researcher and his travelling colleague that was certainly along the lines of “this sister is old and frail so I want to get more information and confirmation before we start harassing her”. I am not making it up. I cannot recall it verbatim and because I am away from home at the moment I do not know whether or not my PVR has recorded the episode. If so, I shall replay it and make a written record of the conversation. If I was wrong I shall apologise. There would be no point in my inventing such a statement because the evidence of it exists and can easily be checked. The “sister” referred to was possibly not a potential beneficiary but they thought she might have had important family information that would help identify the rightful beneficiaries. I am not trying to make a big thing out of this – it was probably a slip of the tongue and perhaps the researcher had forgotten that he was being filmed; my point, though, is that the government’s policy on bona vacantia estates leads to a pursuit mentality – the race to flush out the heirs and outsmart the competition are amply demonstrated in every episode [because it makes good television].

Throughout this Conversation I have tried to take a balanced view of the bona vacantia business. I have not sought to discredit heir hunters and I have defended the cross-subsidisation of case work. As you said in another recent comment they do a lot more than pursue intestate estates. No one has suggested that it is not a legitimate business and, as I said previously, I think it’s perfectly proper for us to have a discussion on whether or not the residue of the unclaimed estates of people who made no will should either (a) be held for ages in reserve in case somebody can be found with a proper claim it, or (b) whether after a sensible interval it should be put into a statutory trust fund for allocation for good causes. That is not an attack on heir hunters.

Maria says:
13 August 2015

John Ward,

For your information, it IS held for 15 years by the Treasury ( which BTW, it has changed its name now ) but I still call it the Treasury Solicitor, if after 15 years no one comes forward, then all the money goes to the government. Also, if we find heirs in an estate that its 12 years old, the Treasury gets ALL the interest on that estate too and give just the capital. Although I think that is unfair, since this money was NOT the governments money to begin with, so why should they keep something that never belonged to them ! It is completely unfair that the interest accumulated by an estate in the hands of the Treasury won’t be given to the heirs, just the original sum of 12 years ago.

I was aware of the 12 year/15 year distinction but for simplicity I referred to 12 years earlier because that is the time limit for distribution of the whole estate without loss of interest. I presume that the interest that accrues on unclaimed estates between 12 and 15 years [plus the total amounts forfeited beyond 15 years] is needed to fund the continuing existence of the bona vacantia department without which nothing could happen.

I am against the money [capital or interest] just dropping straight into the government’s general revenue. That’s why I suggested an inalienable trust fund with statutory protection and independent trustees.

Since April 2015 the treasury solicitor’s department has been renamed the Government Legal Department. That is not an attractive name and could be interpreted to suggest that all the other government departments are not legal! The title Treasury Solicitor still appears in the Heir Hunters programmes because some of them were made some time ago. Your new series will be bang up to date on this I expect.

I have been able to replay the Heir Hunters TV programme referred to in my post three boxes above. The exact transcript is as follows : “. . . she’s very elderly . . . I’d rather confirm whether she’s right or wrong before we start hassling her . . .”.

I had a brief look at one of the heir hunters programmes and was disappointed to see people being called by complete strangers in case they were related to the deceased or their family. If anyone called me asking for this sort of information they would be treated in the same way as callers engaged in phishing.

I have asked whether heir hunters are regulated at least twice, but cannot remember seeing a reply.

Looking at the website of the Heir Hunters Association I found the following information: “Overall the profession is not regulated and some leading organisations feel fees should be capped or controlled in other ways to avoid exploitation of beneficiaries contacted by Heir Hunters. However typical Heir Hunters working on a “no win no fee” basis carry heavy risks if they fail to find beneficiaries, or find the estate is too small to cover their costs of the search.”

The apparent justification for lack of regulation in the second sentence does not seem reasonable to me.

There seems to be some confusion here. Is this list discussing a particular television programme discussing the work of heir hunters, or is it about that sub-set of the legal profession known as “heir hunters”.

I had always taken this list to be about that sub-set of the legal profession, and not the TV programme.

In addition, the TV programme is performing an important public service in informing the public as to how that part of the legal profession operates. This is a democracy, and although the legal profession charges the public fees (and collects taxes on behalf of the government), it has its power bestowed by parliament. If it didn’t have that special power it would just be classed as a protection racket. It is therefore an arm of government.

This is a democracy, and if the majority of the public is not happy with the way the legal profession goes about its duties, then they should write to their MPs with sensible suggestions as to how it may be improved. [For examples make more use of email, and stop using snail mail (often second class) and playing telephone tag. Find a way past call centres. Don’t charge clients hundreds of pounds an hour whilst listening to music and lies about your call being important.]

It is no good writing with badmouthing, such as saying they are all a load of overpaid crooks. That helps no one and gets nothing done. Try and be positive.


Probate researchers [a.k.a. heir hunters] are not a branch of the legal profession. If they were they would be regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority and be subject to the codes and standards of the Law Society. Neither applies to heir hunters and they are not subject to any statutory authority.

I find the quotation supplied by Wavechange from the Heir Hunters Association’s website almost meaningless and the second sentence is not really connected in meaning to the first. Who are these “leading organisations” who feel fees should be capped or controlled? I think the situation would be far worse if the fee or commission was costed on the amount of work done on each case. The presumption must be that competition between firms constrains exorbitant fees and that if beneficiaries could not see that they would inherit the majority of the value of the estate they would not sign up. I don’t believe anybody is worse off from the attentions of an heir hunter; that might be a back-to-front way of looking at it but it is more than can be said for many intermediaries, including some in regulated professions.

Is it fair to charge a 20% success fee plus administration costs of £56 on an estate of about £1400?

Not unless it’s the only way to unlock the estate, Nick. Other firms might do it for a lower fee and, as Kevin Mears says below, a local solicitor might be much cheaper. It will largely depend on whether the ‘heir hunters’ have access to vital information that other firms do not. It is not clear in either Nick’s or Kevin’s case that it is a bona vacantia estate in the hands of the Government Legal Department [formerly Treasury solicitor].

Only 15% of the total estate was their asking fee when Estate Research contacted me and my relatives with news of my fathers passing … I did a little research of my own, talking to local solicitors and looking on the internet. Probate can be done for a little over £200 alone, and a local family solicitor could handle the paperwork for as little as £200 … Example: £100’000 estate – £400 -£500 probate and solicitors fee, or pay £15’000 to Estate Research … thankfully I chose not to accept their services and found my own solicitor

How can I locate my father’s monies without the help of T********* as my sisters and I live in Florida? It seems we will have to pay 1/3 of the asset totaling £19k+.

rather late in the day and likely you have all wandered off – if any one – hopefully John Ward , sees this post then perhaps you would be kind enough to advise me.
recently I was contacted – apparently I am the last beneficiary to be contacted – I was told about an uncle I never met who had sadly passed away in 2014. . . intestate. The firm wanted me to sign up although the chap explained that my 2 sisters had already lodged a claim with bona vacantia. I havent signed up as from my research it seems that the heir hunting company are now the administrator and as such they have a legal responsibility to share out the assets – being recompensed for their efforts by the estate.
What do you all think- I have been told they do not know the size of the estate yet and are applying / have already applied for letters of administration.
I am a disabled woman in her sixties caring alone for a son with autism – for us every penny would count as we are completely isolated without supports save state benefit in Ireland and struggle every day financially for a very basic level of comfort.
Will I still inherit without having signed up with this company . . have I done the right thing here . . .

perhaps I should add here that family contact dwindled for me – and likely for my uncle too – many years ago . I was born a black sheep it seems – ditto William and I remain so – therefore I am unable to consult any of the other beneficiaries , though I am told by the company that they believe there to be 6 of us.

I have read your comment, Gill but I shall be away for a spell and will respond early next week.

Hi Gill,
You might find some useful information here:

Have you searched the internet to see if you can find any information on your uncle?

Hopefully John will be able to give you some good advice.

Thankyou both – my uncle was living in Sheffield – I am living in the Republic of Ireland.
I have been trawling the internet for the last ten days but it seems that the Heir Hunters may have effectively controlled the information available there so that signing with them seems to be the only option. From something I found in the early hours I may be best off to simply sit tight and sign nothing at this stage.

I have just received my share of a long lost relatives Will after signing up to Finders in Sept 16 with the grand sum of £55. The cheque came with a one line sentence this is your share of… , no other info ie initial sum , no breakdown of cost. I only knew how much the legacy & how many benefactors there was was after contacting finders in Sept 17 & told their were 30 and offered the promised family tree, which I received a week later , at same time I enquirer how much left by this relative & with a nervous stammer-was told £7.000 ?? On the family tree there was 28 confirmed benefactors but 2 untraced , I’m unaware if the tracked them down, but surly after finders have took their 20% + vat there should be more than the £55 for each benefactor. I’m not in contact with the others so not sure if they made contact with Finders like I did & had some Idea of what to expect. I can see the bewilderment on their faces after receiving a cheque with no info of initial sum & how many it was shared between . Do you smell a sea breeze wafting over as I do.

It looks like the beneficiaries have been seriously short-changed and received a third of what simple arithmetic produces – unless some beneficiaries were entitled to different proportions of the estate residue to others. Unfortunately, unlike executors, heir hunters are not obliged to account to the beneficiaries for the value of the estate or its division. I am surprised they gave you a figure at all.

John you are in fact incorrect. Heir hunters when paying out their monies they are indded required to account to all beneficiaries just as anyone else is. They have to show that the share each individual is receiving is correct and also where all monies have gone.

Let’s clarify things. People inherit according to their relationship to the deceased. If there are two brothers of the deceased, both dead and one has 5 living descendants and the other has only 1 descendant then each of the 5 will get one fifth of what the only child, their cousin gets. That’s why not everybody gets the same amount. If you are signing an Agreement with a genealogist read everything carefully. Some of the new firms who came into existence after the “Heir Hunters” show started are charging a percentage plus their expenses and things like postage costs and cost of certificates. If the genealogist is charging an heir a percentage as a contingency fee then there should be no question of also having to pay part of the expenses incurred in trying to find that heir. This is wrong: the only fee that should be charged is the percentage.

I am obliged for that information Rob. I only noticed your comment today. It would seem, therefore, that Karen might not have been short-changed but possibly under-informed. If that was in fact the case the firm might not have been complying with the law.

susan says:
6 August 2018

Please could you assist me I have just found a long lost relative. His father was the step brother of my maternal grandfather. When I contacted my cousin he was very unemotional cold, cagey ( not happy that I was asking questions concerning my family – moreover, that I even turned up!) I do believe that there is a property etc involved that he inherited through his father (my grandfather was deceased.) My cousin never bothered to try and locate my mother (deceased RIP) or any other living relatives, this he reported to me!
If, I had been treated in a different manner, I would have been happy to have accepted things. But because of his dismissive and resentment manner towards me. His whole attitude and mannerism makes me think that he has something to hide? What are my legal options please and where do I start in tracing Wills, Letters of Administration etc!

Hi Susan,Thanks for your comment, and I am sorry to hear of the difficulties you have had. I’m also sorry i didn’t comment to let you know I was looking into this for you! I spoke to someone in our Legal team and here’s the information I received from them:

“Your exact legal position and what you can/need to do will depend on the exact circumstances, including where about’s the estate was and whether or not there was a will. I will assume that the estate was in England and Wales. (If the estate was in another country then the below information will not apply).

If there was a valid will and a Grant was needed to administer the estate then the relevant Grant would be Probate. If applied for then both the Grant and the will will be available on the Gov.uk website here – https://www.gov.uk/search-will-probate. Please note there is a £10 fee payable to obtain these documents.

If there was no will, or no valid executor, then the relevant Grant is Letters of Administration (with will annexed if there was a will but no executor), and again, the Grant will be publicly available via the above website, for the applicable fee.

In terms of your entitlement to any of the estate, if there was a will that named you as a beneficiary then you will be entitled to receive that gift insofar as it was owned by the deceased at the date of death. A will can only give away assets that the deceased owned at the date of their death, and occasionally gifts in wills fail if the deceased sold (or otherwise got rid of) the named asset before they passed away.

If there was no will then the rules of intestacy apply, and there is a strict list of who is entitled to inherit, and this list can be found here – https://www.gov.uk/inherits-someone-dies-without-will

You would fall under a category of lesser entitlement to your cousin, so if your cousin’s father left no spouse/civil partner, then he (and any siblings or their children) would inherit the whole estate.

In either case if you can show that you were financially dependent on the person that passed away prior to their death, you may have a claim against the estate under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975, however from what you have written about the family being distant, it is highly unlikely this would apply in your case.

If you would like to know more about what entitlement you may have to benefit from the estate you should take professional legal advice.”

I hope that helps, Susan. We have a service at Which? to help you create a will, and also our Legal Services. Both links are below if you need them.


This comment was removed at the request of the user

I agree, Duncan. Since there has been no new traffic on this Conversation until today I had not visited it since reading Elena’s comment in August and there was no ‘thumbs down’ then.

Elena provided an excellent response service on this website during her brief period as the locum editor and I really got the impression we were going places. To avoid any misunderstanding, I think George and Oscar have picked up the baton successfully and are also trying hard to improve the timeliness and quality of response.

Thanks for the kind words, John. I want to see as many Which? staff active on here as possible. Plenty of work still to be done, but we’re going in the right direction.


Is it common for heir hunters to go after estates where there is a will and then dispute the validity of the will?

Legal beagles – The question is – does the heir hunter have a viable claim against me to get some money?

A French genealogical researcher – an heir hunter, contacted me a few months ago.

I have a share in a house in France that my estranged father co-owned. Now that both he and his partner have passed away this heir hunter found my address and sent me a contract to sign requiring that I pay 30% of the value of the inheritance. I am disinclined to sign as the contract is unclear and 30% is a very high price to pay.

I sent out a mailshot to loads of notaires in France with a request for information. I didn’t know at this point who it was but, but the responsible notaire then contacted the heir hunter (not me) providing him with my telephone number.

The heir hunter called me up and was pressure selling me in to signing the contract. During the conversation I caught him off guard and managed to force the name of the responsible notaire out of him.

I am in a position to go direct to the notaire. I have not signed the contract.

The question is – does the heir hunter have a viable claim against me to get some money?

I think you need specialist legal advice, Applicationcen, especially since it involves estate in a foreign jurisdiction. The law in France on the handling of unclaimed estates or where there is no will could be different from the UK law.

Thank you. I’ve contacted property inheritance solicitors in both the UK and France.

The UK one said as I had not signed a contract with the heir hunters she would not talk to them.

The French one said she would deal with the heir hunter first.

Both said I could talk to the notaire direct with out using a solicitor if I wanted to save money.

I concur with John’s advice; there could be a fair bit of money involved here, and you really do need professional legal advice from specialists in French land and property law.

I concur with John too. The (relatively) small amount for solid advice here could save you 30% of the property value. In the interim, another good thing to do is find someone to mind the property for you. You don’t want it empty too long – or risk it being occupied by squatters (or the French equivalent).