Avoiding Unscrupulous Heir Hunters

Genealogy, or tracing your ancestors, has been popularised by TV shows such as Who Do You Think You Are? and Long Lost Family. Financial incentives, time constraints, and competition from rival businesses have been added to the mix in the BBC’s Heir Hunters series. Heir Hunters follows the attempts by genealogy businesses to trace the beneficiaries of people who have died intestate, the legal term for dying without leaving a valid will. Based on what success they achieve and the value of the estate, the heir hunting company takes a commission or fee from the beneficiaries.

When someone dies without leaving a valid will and without any apparent next of kin, their details are included on an official unclaimed estates list, which is updated every working day by the Government Legal Department. This is known as the bona vacantia list (Latin for “ownerless goods”) and is used by heir hunting firms as the raw material for their research into the deceased person’s family tree.

Heir hunters also use information provided by local councils when they arrange a public health funeral, commonly known as a `pauper’s funeral’. Under the Public Health Act 1984, local authorities must organise a funeral if there are no family members or friends to take on the responsibility. A council may also step in if the family or friends have no funds available, or if the deceased is estranged from their relatives. Local authorities have interpreted the requirement for public health funerals in different ways so in September 2020 the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government issued a series of guidelines. 

There are, however, growing concerns over the practices engaged in by some heir hunting firms, as well as their high fees, and the general lack of transparency in the market. A new report commissioned by genealogy company Anglia Research claims that some local authorities in England and Wales have  agreed deals with heir hunting companies, giving them prime access to information on intestate deaths and restricting competition from other businesses. On occasions, heir hunting companies may only attempt to track down beneficiaries who can be found easily, leaving others unidentified, disinherited and facing costly and time-consuming legal action to reclaim their rightful legacy. Cases have even come to light where heir hunters sign up and claim fees from beneficiaries of intestate estates, despite knowing that a will already exists and that other beneficiaries will have prior claims.

There is, of course, a simple solution for people to avoid ever having to deal with heir hunting companies. That is to ensure that they, as well as everyone in their extended family, have drawn up a comprehensive and legally-binding will. Not only does this enable the loved ones left behind to deal with the estate in a straightforward and stress-free manner, but also ensures that the deceased’s assets are distributed fully in accordance with their wishes.

Bretherton Law have been helping the people of Hertfordshire to manage their affairs for over 50 years. Our expert team can guide you through the Will Writing process, as well as dealing with Lasting Powers of Attorney, Court of Protection, trust or probate services on your behalf. Contact Anne Stockley on 01727 869293 or use the contact form below.


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