/ 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?

WindyCityNorth says:
29 July 2013

The title of this discussion “Are Heir Hunters Cheating us out of our Inheritance is for the average person to decide.

What has happened is this discussion has been taken over by the self serving people in the Heir Hunting industry. What a joke !!!!!

I know the industry would love for this discussion to end as they look increasingly bad with every post.. Lets keep this going and soon perhaps the government will put an end to this industry with tight regulations.

Aslan says:
30 July 2013

Just recently had settlement following a ‘claim’. LLoads of relatives involved. Company handled it well. 25% fee but it was hassle free for me and money I wouldn’t have known to expect anyway so I though in the end, compared to some people’s experiences, it went well. Obviously, sad not to have known the relative who left the money to be claimed – there’s a human being somewhere at the back end of all of this. Good luck folks!

Steve Abrahart says:
2 August 2013

Hi Which. It’s a bit of a legal story but I thought you might be interested. I have three brother and a sister, myself, one of my brothers and my sister received a letter from A Heir Hunter Company (which I will call the HHC) concerning what I understood to be an intestate will ( no will ) – after talking to the HHC, myself, brother and sister signed a contract.

We later found out that there was a will and HHC were contracted by a solicitors to find people on the will (even though I understand they had contact details on record).

After talking to the solicitors it turns out that they had made mistakes with unauthorised payments for burials etc. the solicitors contacted the HHC to ask them not to send any more letters. My siblings and I have since received letters requesting administration and seeking 10% of our inheritance (about £7500 by my estimate) for doing a quick Internet search.

It also turns out the HHC had no legal right to see the will and the will was not gazetted. I suspect that this may have been an attempt by the solicitors to hide mistakes by going through a third party.

We have paid the solicitors their fee (minus burial fees) and now have to deal with a lot of legalise from The HHC who have not answered our questions to our satisfaction, nor given us proper access to the communications and data held on ourselves under the data protection act.

Suffice to say that something underhand and iffy has occurred and the HHC will not desist and continue to regard the contracts as valid.

I have read recently of other agencies that hunt intestate wills playing slight of hand and wonder if we too have been at the end of some dodgy dealings.

I hope you find this interesting and can help in any way.

If probate had been granted then the will becomes a public document and anyone can obtain a copy of that will.


Steve Abrahart says:
2 August 2013

Thanks for offering assistance but I’m looking for legal clarification not a another genealogist – that I do not need as all was made clear in a will.

I can put you in touch with an independent lawyer if you wish and they won’t charge you. I am as keen as you are to ensure fair play! Will leave it it with you, please call if you want the contact info, best wishes, Daniel.

Hi I received a call from a firm of genealogist who have been contacted by the solicitor dealing with a recently deceased relative‘s estate they were asking questions about my family.
A day later I received a letter requesting 20% + VAT for them to add me to the genealogy report.
I contacted the solicitor dealing with the estate and they said I would have to agree to the genealogists request as they would not be able to consider me to be a beneficiary.
This letter has been sent to all my relatives deemed to be beneficiaries. The puzzling thing is we are not lost we were all at the funeral and can all provide birth, death and Marriage certificates but the solicitor says these are not enough.
Surely this can not be right.

Steve Abrahart says:
20 August 2013

That sounds nonsense. I had the same problem in that I was ‘lost’ even though I was on the will – a simple Internet search would have found me, contacted me, and asked to provide evidence. I suggest you ask the solicitors for a copy of the will – or least get some free legal advice. I would check that the solicitors are acting correctly and not trying to hide errors. Mistakes and overcharging by going through a middle-man. Indeed there may some backhanders going on here. Don’t sign anything, ask the solicitors wether the death was gazetted in a paper and if your names were on the will – was there a reading of the will. Go to Citizens Advice – that’s my opinion.

Hi there was a will but it has been proven not valid. The line to me is through my mother who is deceased. All the family are still in contact with each other and we have provided the geneologists with all the details everyone left still alive or the ones deceased who had children there is only 12 of us.

Some of these posts are difficult to comment on because they lack certain pieces of information. If the “solicitor” was in fact the Treasury Solicitor then they would either insist on a documented family tree proving your relationship to the deceased or, if there had already been an accepted claim referring you to the solicitor handling the claim. One particular firm has its own in-house solicitor so occasionally the Treasury refers you to that firm rather than its solicitor arm. I gather that this firms principal does post here so I’m sure that he would be able to assist you in your query.
Even if all of the heirs were at the funeral, that doesn’t mean that you will be recognised as heirs by the estate’s administrator. If you are not represented by a genealogist, who will have done the proving for you, then you will be asked to present all of the needed certificates.
On another point, if anyone thinks that they can sit on their hands and wait for a cheque to roll in then they may have to be prepared to wait for a very long time. The instance mentioned by one of the constant correspondents at great length where he did nothing but still got his cheque suffers from lack of information. Someone concerned with the estate knew who he was and how to contact him.
There are plenty of cases where heirs have been impossible to find. Sometimes we know that they have left the country but not where they went to. Often they just disapear: a birth but no marriage and no death. In such cases we will either arrange a missing beneficiary policy or keep the asset in our client account for when the heir turns up. We have just arranged for a cheque to be sent to an heir living outside the UK who had been out of touch with his family for many years but had found an address for one of his close relatives and decided to send a Christmas card.

What about trying Which? Legal Services. Wills and probate are listed as an area they cover. Their phone number is 01992 877 448 so they should be able to tell you if they can help you at the outset.


Good luck.

I have been sent an email referring to a new comment on this topic which I can’t trace here so presumably it has been removed by the moderators as it was potentially actionable. In case anyone read it before it was removed I refute it completely and confirm that Celtic Research does not get solicitors to refund to them their expenses. I do however know some firms who have done this.

WindyCityNorth says:
4 September 2013

Are you confirming what you stated or just advertising what you said is true. Why would you bring it up again if it wasn’t ? So you believe that Celtic Research does get solicitors to refund to them their expenses ? Personally I have no idea … but it kinda makes sense that they do. But who knows . If other firms do it no one would be surprised if Celtic research did it.

Let me make this clear. My company has been accused of getting solicitors to refund them all their expenses in a case. Celtic Research does not do this. Our contingency fees are our only reward. All research costs are our responsibility.

Thank you for clarifying. Can we end this exchange here? The original comment was removed for a reason. Thanks.

I have removed a couple of your comments – please don’t ignore me when I say to end this particular exchange there. Let’s move on to talking about heir hunter companies in general, rather than accusing particular companies.

WindyCityNorth says:
4 September 2013

Patrick your idea to have only comments on the industry in general is a wee bit late. The individual company’s have been using this discussion as an advertising vehicle for some time.

Better late than never … will watch with bated breath as this new rule unfolds.

The point is …….. just wait for the cheque in the mail and if you absolutely have to ….. don’t pay any heir hunters more than 10 per cent . The administrator has to contact all heirs by the penalty of law ….. if you deserve it you will get it without paying a cent. It’s always good to keep in contact with relatives . Just wait them out. Thats what I did and am the richer for it.

The Secret Heir Hunter says:
6 September 2013

I find myself in the unfortunate position of having to agree with WCN. The title of this article should be kept in mind. WHICH is a consumer organisation but now appear to want to limit the truth being told and portray a biased and slanted point of view. WHICH were quite happy to publish the original article that everyone in the industry knew was referenced from one source only and had a set agenda.

Nothing I have said is wrong or untrue.

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

WindyCityNorth says:
1 October 2013

Thank-you, Secret Heir Hunter your search for the truth is admirable.


Hi all – just to clarify. Please don’t provoke or accuse other members of the community. There’s also a danger that your comments could get you and us to trouble as not all the facts are known. I’d prefer it if we moved on. Thanks.

sunshinestate says:
25 September 2013

Has anyone looked into the qualifications of those people running the Heir Hunters Association?

Looked at their website today and they claim to be advising heir hunters, those wanting to start a business in this field and get this the members of the public however you have to pay to see what they offer.

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

WindyCityNorth says:
26 September 2013

Well, the previous comments are an indication of the entire heir hunter industry, not to be trusted . If people in the industry are turning on themselves like rats leaving a ship, the average Joe is defenceless.

Just wait it out your money will get to you without the benefit of this industry ,,,been there done that and am the richer for it!

Here’s the process:
We try to find all of the heirs. We send them Agreements and the majority sign and return them. Those that do not return them are asked to provide certificates linking them to the deceased plus proofs of identity. If they refuse to do that then their share is held in a Client Account until they are able to prove their claim. This is exactly what the Treasury will do.

WindyCityNorth says:
1 October 2013

Peter Birchwood,your recent comment has summed up the whole game quite nicely. I whole heartidly agree with you . KISS, Keep It Simple Stupid is my motto … You are to be commended for your honest admissions on this topic.

WindyCityNorth says:
28 September 2013

I will again reiterate, once one person has been contacted by the heirhunter , the rest just have to wait for the money to drop out of the sky. This isn’t rocket science !

“I will again reiterate, once one person has been contacted by the heirhunter , the rest just have to wait for the money to drop out of the sky.”
Recently the TS notified that on a case where I had made a claim they had accepted a claim from a company that I had never heard of on behalf of an heir.I contacted that company. From what they said it seems that they had found one heir (there are many) and passed the assets on to her (less their fees etc) for her to do the admin and pay out all of the beneficiaries. Whether they belong to the HHA I do not know. She didn’t pay out the beneficiaries because none of my heirs got a thing so I am faced with probably having to take legal action to get the share due to my heirs.
The point here of course is that my heirs have been sitting around for months waiting “for the money to drop out of the sky” and if I hadn’t got involved, they would be waiting for the foreseeable future.

And I will reiterate again that unless they prove their descent as is required by law then they wont get a penny unless they agree to the HH company obtaining the necessary evidence to prove that persons descent from the deceased.

You seem to assume that you understand UK law however it is clear you do not but I am not going to get into this debate with you again because it is just going around in circles because of your inability to understand the letter of the law.

WindyCityNorth says:
29 September 2013

[This comment has been removed due to breaking our guidelines. Thanks, mods.]

It is very interesting that you cannot respond with anything but the above. My livelihood is not at stake one little bit by your rants. Like other firms out there I know I work within the law, I also know that all those I have represented to the treasury are very happy with my services. So yes we will let the readers of this report choose. I am sure that they are intelligent enough to realise that this report is based on Berkshire Trading Standards V Pilley and if they read the whole case they will actually understand that this was one person who hid behind two companies to fleece a family out of their rightful monies. The fact that this case was not in reality against heir hunting at all but the fact that the person involved used one firm he openly ran to obtain work from a solicitors firm and then passed that work onto a company that was registered to his infirm elderly mother so that he could claim two lots of expenses. Unfortunately I do not know what the Which report actually said because they have repeatedly ignored my requests to see their report which leads me to believe they have something to hide within that report

“The Heir Hunters Association is unbiased, unique independent body designed to create greater awareness of the role and importance of Heir Hunters in modern society on an international basis.”

Quoted from an Heir Hunters Association publication.

Dave says:
9 October 2013

He was supporting the defence in the Pilley/Beneficiaries Ltd case?



Several companies including ourselves pay subscriptions to data bases giving details from electoral registers and other address details. We buy a license for this. I have heard that an HHA member who had such a license was reselling information through HHA. At least two database providers have problems about that and have informed the Information Commisioners Office.

Heir Hunters
This is off the topic but I must confess that I don’t like the term, preferring something like forensic genealogist.
Although it came into popular use after the launch of the TV show, I can’t blame Flame TV for the usage. It was certainly in use in the US much earlier and there is a crime novel by the now almost forgotten Bill Ballinger published about 1966 calle “The Heir Hunters.”

TheSecretHeirHunter says:
20 November 2013

The latest advice from the HHA and Maurice appears is to sign one client or stem. Then submit a claim for the estate. Once the claim is accepted it is advisable to wait for the value to be established. This apparently then allows time for any other research company who may have done work on the case to come forward with heirs………
So what does the HH do if the value is low then Maurice?