Every year, thousands of people die intestate or without a will. That means they haven’t left any clear guidelines as to how they want their estate divided up among their beneficiaries. The numbers are incredible too, with around 70% of the UK population yet to get their affairs in order and create a will.
It’s rare that a person dies without at least one living relative who, if they are the only direct heir, could inherit everything. If no heir is found then the estate will (eventually) go to the Crown. However, there are some knights in shining armour out there who, for a fee, will make sure you get your rightful inheritance – even if you don’t know about it. They’re called ‘Heir Hunters’, and they’re very, very good at research!
What are Heir Hunters?
These full-time genealogists/family investigators hunt through government records for names of people who have died intestate, and with no obvious living relative (at least, none that can be easily traced).
Every Thursday HM Treasury releases a list of names, dates of birth, and the place and date of death of thousands of people. With this basic information, they can then scour the family trees and start to trace anyone who may be related to the deceased. This includes distant cousins or even lost siblings. The work is painstaking, detailed and sometimes incredibly complicated, especially if family records have been interrupted by world wars, for example, or if relatives have emigrated overseas.
Fortunately, though, they have plenty of time to do this research, as there is a 12-year time limit before the Crown (or the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster) can claim the estate as their own. Heir hunters are methodical and dig deep into the family records to find anyone who may be entitled to a share of their dead relative’s estate.
How much do they charge?
There is a fee involved, as there is a lot of time and effort involved in tracing a family which can include frequent trips up and down motorways, or even flights abroad. The usual fee is between 10% and 30% (plus VAT), or alternatively some hunters charge a time-based fee that depends on how long it takes to track down details relating to the case.
You’re not the only one
You do have to be realistic about the amount of an estate you could receive (after fees), as it’s statistically unlikely you’ll be the sole beneficiary. It can also be a case that initially you may inherit everything, but then other relatives are traced. If you’ve already spent the inheritance then you could be seriously out of pocket if you then have to pay the other relatives a share of the original estate value. In this instance it may be wise to take out what is known as ‘Missing Beneficiary Indemnity’ insurance.
Can’t I do it myself?
It is possible to do your own ‘heir hunting’ but bear in mind that specialist probate and inheritance experts have the resources at their fingertips to get the job done quickly. You’ll need to have some hard evidence of the validity of your claim, such as a detailed family tree (obviously including the name of the deceased!). It takes a long time to trace documents that could make all the difference to ratifying a claim, so it is usually best to hand the job over to the experts.
If you think you may be the rightful heir of an unknown fortune, it’s well worth contacting specialist heir hunters to see if you are entitled to a share in your long-lost great uncle’s estate!
This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.