Hints & Tips Eight: What Should You do if Approached by Heir Hunters?
The Society of Genealogists can't give legal advice and would always suggest contacting a lawyer or the Citizen’s Advice Bureau if you have been approached by a professional probate research company.
Tracing heirs for intestacy
There are a number of companies that specialise in tracing the heirs of people who have died intestate or where a will is proven but the executors have been unable to find the missing heirs. The latter falls under the heading of ‘instructed’ work, because there is a valid will which has appointed someone who can draw funds from the estate for various purposes, including the tracing of any missing beneficiaries. The former is known as ‘uninstructed’ work, in that there is no-one with the authority to commission any research. Probate research companies undertake both types of work. On the uninstructed side, it is a common practice and it's accepted that companies that have gone to the bother of tracking down the heirs will want to charge the beneficiary a contingency fee that is equivalent to a percentage of the inheritance. On the instructed side, it is more usual for there to be a predetermined fixed fee that will come out of the estate expenses before any residue is distributed to the heirs.
If and when contingency fees arise they can be negotiable and should fairly reflect the work involved, and no-one should feel pressured into signing such an agreement. Various consumer laws offer good protection, including a 7-day cooling off period following the signing of any finder’s fee agreement. Before signing, you might be advised to contact the Treasury Solicitor for advice to see if you can establish any connection with the intestate cases yourself. Given the limited rules regarding the qualifying degrees of relationship in cases of intestacy, you may well be able to establish for yourself who the intestate relative might be.
Find Out More
Probate research companies generally find out about the unclaimed estates from the government's official Bona Vacantia (or “ownerless goods”) division of the Treasury Solicitor. Known as Bona Vacantia this website publishes information about unclaimed estates that are administered by the Treasury Solicitor and is open to the public. There you can find advice for relatives who feel they are entitled to a share of the estate. For more information and to search for names of estates go to the Treasury Solicitor’s website but be aware that apart from the name, date, and place of death, they will impart no other information, not even the basic fact that everyone is keen to know, i.e how much is it worth?
Probate Companies and Researchers
A number of larger probate research companies are based in London and some have been featured in the BBC Heir Hunters television programme. Many smaller companies or individual researchers also work in this field. Most probate research companies advertise to the legal profession via websites, legal magazines and directories. The Society of Genealogists does not recommend any one genealogical research company over another and points out that membership of the SoG is by no means a qualification of competency. Anyone seeking to employ a genealogist in this matter is advised to read the SoG’s information leaflet Employing a Professional Researcher and look at the website of the Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (AGRA) , and to satisfy themselves that the genealogist, be they an individual or a firm, has the relevant background and necessary experience and structure, e.g. do they carry Professional Indemnity Insurance?
When an intestate estate is finally distributed it is frequently considered prudent for a Missing Beneficiary Insurance Policy to be arranged, to cover the risk of an overlooked relative emerging and making a valid claim after the distribution. Reputable probate researchers will be skilled in this insurance area and be able to offer assistance in liaising with the insurance companies. In order to do so, though, they should be registered with the Financial Services Authority, so if you do employ anyone’s research services be sure to look out for the FSA logo.
There is a useful newsletter published by the Heir Hunters Association that gives help, advice information and support on matters of intestate estate beneficiary tracing.
If you are approached by a probate genealogy firm asking you to sign an agreement that commits you to paying them a percentage share of the inheritance due, it is advisable to follow the steps outlined below and ask for the following information, which as a beneficiary to the estate, you are entitled to know. If you are in possession of this information, you should be able to recover your entitlement without paying excessive fees to an heir locator.
1. Ask for the name of the deceased and your relationship to them. Someone related to you has died, which is why the heir locator has contacted you.
2. Ask for the name and contact details of the executor or administrator of the estate. You may have to wait until an executor or administrator is appointed.
3. Ask if a professional adviser, usually a solicitor, has been appointed to handle the estate and ask for their contact details.
4. Ask if the value of the estate is known and the number of beneficiaries. This will help you to understand what your share in the estate will be.
5. Ask exactly how much the percentage fee equates to in pounds, and how much time in hours the heir locator has spent on finding you including their published hourly rates for their work, otherwise you are being asked to sign away a percentage of an unknown amount and you cannot assess whether their charge is reasonable.
6. Ask if the estate was originally advertised by the Treasury Solicitor as an unclaimed estate, otherwise known as ‘Bona Vacantia’
7. Advice on recovering your entitlement from the Treasury Solicitor can be found on their website,
8. Don’t feel under any time pressure to sign an agreement. It can take up to 18 months for an estate to be distributed to all beneficiaries. There is no risk of you not receiving your share. The Government is not able to “grab” unclaimed estates. Estates only pass to the Government if they remain unclaimed for up to 30 years. You are entitled to receive your share under the Administration of Estates Act 1925, which sets out which relatives benefit from an estate in the event of an intestacy.
This document was written by Else Churchill and revised by Peter Turvey.
© Society of Genealogists 2012
- Help getting started with genealogy
- Hints & Tips
- Hints & Tips One: Top 10 Tips for Starting Your Family History
- Hints & Tips Two: Genealogy or Family History? What's the Difference?
- Hints & Tips Three: Surname Searching at the SoG and Elsewhere. What's Been Done Before?
- Hints & Tips Four: Genealogy as a Career
- Hints & Tips Five: Standards and Good Practice in Genealogy
- Hints & Tips Six: Employing a Professional Genealogist
- Hints & Tips Seven: The Right to Arms
- Hints & Tips Eight: What Should You do if Approached by Heir Hunters?
- Hints & Tips Nine: London Research
- Hints & Tips Ten: Palaeography Part 1: How to Create Abstracts from Old Documents
- Hints & Tips Eleven Palaeography Part 2: Reading Secretary Hand
- Hints & Tips Twelve: How to Get the Best Results from FamilySearch
- Hints & Tips Thirteen: How to Get the Best Results from the IGI
- Hints & Tips Fourteen: Finding and Downloading PCC Wills from the National Archives Website
- Hints & Tips Fifteen: Fact or Fiction? How to Analyse Your Research
- Hints & Tips Sixteen: Writing Genealogical Reports
- Distance Learning Courses
- Ask an Expert
- Share Your Knowledge
- Make Connections
- Professional Researchers
- Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2013 Speakers Handouts
- Census Detectives
- Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2014
- Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2014 Speakers' Handouts
Learn more about sources or find some helpful hints and tips. Get help and advice.
Free surname search using SoG Data Online
Help Getting Started
The Society's Record Guides introduce the sources that will help you with your family history