How to be an heir hunter

We’ve all read or heard stories about long lost relatives leaving huge secret inheritances, whether it is popular fiction or in real life – and sometimes, it requires detective work.

One man, turned heir hunter, has carved out an international business by putting people together with forgotten fortunes that they inherited through the death of a relative who died intestate. Or, in other words, without a will.

It wasn’t always easy though. There was a time when genealogists were not taken seriously – mainly because little was known about the profession.

Fast forward 22 years, and Danny is a regular guest on BBC’s Heir Hunters – due to return to our screens soon – and his business boasts a turnover of £7million.

Finders International hires around 100 staff across its London, Edinburgh, Dublin and Australian offices and has also launched satellite offices in the US and South Africa and is trying to expand in these markets.

The heir hunting industry has also matured since 1998, when his business was launched.

t’s now a highly competitive industry, which is why Danny is reluctant to talk about profits, and the probate detective services are regularly sought out by councils and solicitors that don’t have the capacity, funding or manpower to do in-depth genealogical searches.

The heir hunting industry is not regulated by any official governmental bodies or agencies but it has taken steps to self-regulate and also upholds the rules of the Professional Paralegal Register.

To keep the industry in check, Danny created the first international body – the International Association of Professional Probate Hunters.

The IAPPR now represents 12 international companies spread across the world.

Are large windfalls common?

Danny says: ‘While there are plenty of cases where large estate values are discovered in the millions, in the majority of cases however individual entitlements are not likely to be large.’

Large windfalls are rare because estates often need to be divided by all of the next of kin.

At the moment average estate values are typically between £20,000–£50,000 according to Finders International.

Danny points out that in one case £10,000 was shared between 17 eligible beneficiaries.

But large pay outs are possible too. In one case £650,000 was left to one individual from a relative they did not even know they had while in another a nice and aunt were reunited after three decades with a £250,000 inheritance.

How does ‘heir hunting’ work?

An heir hunter will approach you by sending a letter or calling you to say that you’re due an inheritance.

They may not and disclose who the deceased is, but they may give you an estimate on your inheritance.

If you agree to go ahead with the investigation, they should give you a contract stating that their company will be hired to investigate and locate the inheritance.

The consumer protection rights of cancellation of contract extends to potential heirs who sign up to an heir hunter.

It means customers have up to 14 days to change their minds if they’re not comfortable with the process.

If you agree to hire the company and pay the commission – which can be anything from 15-25 per cent or higher, the rest of the risk will be taken on by the heir hunter.

But it’s possible to negotiate this fee.

Danny says his average fee is 20 per cent but it could be more for complex cases. ‘If there’s a risky case that requires high investment we could charge more.

‘We once had a case where we had to excavate a body for a DNA test. We could’ve lost everything but luckily the DNA test was positive.’

After the contract is signed the heir hunter will take on the risk and research.

Danny says: ‘This can involve everything from raiding the national archives, census reports, war records, trawling through insolvency documents and of course embarking on a will search – one of the most important pieces in the puzzle of distributing assets to heirs (if there is one).

‘It’s this entire suite of services which is the value Finders brings.’

Watch out for scams

Heir hunting is a long established, legitimate business. That’s not to say that criminals haven’t tried to take advantage of the fame that the industry has attracted through the popular BBC series.

Danny says: ‘There’s been a few cases where people have posed as heir hunters or are heir hunters on an amateur level that don’t understand their legal requirements.

‘We’re very easy to check up on. We have formed a voluntary regulatory body but there are other ways to check up on a company such as through Trading Standards and the Association of Professional Genealogists.’

There shouldn’t be any ‘hidden charges’ and heir hunters don’t ask for money upfront.

They typically work together with solicitors that specialise in wills and probate.

Solicitors fees don’t form part of an heir hunters commission and are charged separately.

Fees are deducted after the estate is wound up and before the assets are distributed to the eligible and surviving family members.

Not all cases fetch a fee. In the last 12 months Finders International completed 1,342 cases and, of those, 531 were pro bono.

Danny says: ‘We have relationships with local authorities and we often help them solve cases where people die in their care without a will or next of kin’.

If they don’t find any heirs it’s the local authorities that are responsible for funeral costs but sometimes Finders International will take on the costs.

Danny says: We have a funeral fund that we use to pay for public sector funerals, commonly known as pauper’s funerals.’

International expansion

Danny believes social isolation is only set to increase as populations continue to grow.

He says: ‘More people are living alone and this will lead to more assets remaining unclaimed, especially across borders.’

His next steps are to increase Finders International’s international footprint and getting to grips with legislation in other countries.

While the industry is now recognised, there are a limited number of professionals serving it and the tracing work, although helped by technology and social media, is onerous.

But Danny wouldn’t have it any other way. ‘I started off as a sole trader and now employ over 100 staff. The life changing experiences I’ve been a part of has been very rewarding.’

This article originally appeared on This Is Money.

How to be an heir hunter

When a person dies, the administrator of the estate will contact heirs so they can receive their proper inheritance. Depending upon how the will is written, or whether there is a will at all, the estate administrator may need help locating all the heirs and may employ the skills of a professional forensic genealogist for help. At the same time, unscrupulous heir hunters may be combing death notices and obituaries, looking for estates that may have unknown or hard-to-locate heirs. These heir hunters contact potential heirs directly and try to get them to sign away much of what the estate may owe them. For advice on what to do if an heir hunter contacts you, read on. If you are an estate administrator or executor, reach out to a dedicated and professional forensic genealogist for qualified, legitimate, and experienced help identifying the proper heirs to an estate.

Do your research – Are they genuine?

If you are contacted by an heir hunter, the first thing you should do is find out as much information as you can find about the firm. Look up their website, check their business address, run some internet searches to see if they are a scam. They may simply be trying to get personally identifying information from you or get you to sign a contract requiring you to pay a fee even if you inherit nothing.

Moreover, a web search might clue you in to the fact that, even if they do help people get an inheritance, they charge much more than necessary. State law regulates how much heir hunters can charge for fees, and you should not be tricked into agreeing to pay more than legally appropriate.

Heir hunters are typically not hired by the estate

There are legitimate forensic genealogists and probate researchers. The estate will retain these firms to find the appropriate heirs if someone dies intestate (without a will), and it is more likely that someone from the estate such as the administrator or the trustee will contact you once you have been identified. Unlike an heir hunter, the estate will not force you to pay a large finder’s fee in exchange for notifying you of the death. The heir hunter is more interested in taking an exorbitant cut of your inheritance, sometimes in the range of 25 to 40 percent, an amount almost certainly disproportionate to the work it took to track you down.

Do not feel time-pressured

If a purported probate researcher tells you that time is of the essence and that you will lose out on your inheritance if you do not sign their contract quickly, they are likely lying to you. If you have the right to inherit property pursuant to a will or estate law, then you will likely have time to evaluate your options. You should ask for the name and number of the estate administrator so that you can speak with them directly.

The administrator of the estate or the trustee will likely find you by their own efforts, and you will end up paying a much smaller cost for the right to inherit what you are owed. If they are legitimate, you should be able to ask questions about all of the details about the estate; they should not try to force you to sign a contract without knowing all of the particulars.

Moreover, even if they refuse to give you this information, you can start to conduct research of your own. If you can find out what estate the heir hunter is trying to feed on, then you will be able to collect your inheritance without paying an unreasonable fee.

Talk to your family

If you have siblings, cousins, or any other family members who may be related to the deceased, reach out to them. Find out if the heir hunter has contacted them or if they have spoken with the estate. Make sure none of you sign a contract with an heir hunter until you have all done your research to find out where the inheritance may be coming from and what the details are.

If you’re an estate administrator in need of skilled help in evaluating the legitimacy of heir hunters or identifying and locating missing heirs to an estate, contact a passionate and thorough forensic genealogist at Von Langen, LLC, at 800-525-7722.

Your prompt, thorough and professional services have been greatly appreciated in this effort. We will keep your card on file for future use and reference to our colleagues.

Scotty Perryman, Assistant Trust Officer – Citizens National Bank

We’ve all read or heard stories about long lost relatives leaving huge secret inheritances, whether it is popular fiction or in real life – and sometimes, it requires detective work.

One man, turned heir hunter, has carved out an international business by putting people together with forgotten fortunes that they inherited through the death of a relative who died intestate. Or, in other words, without a will.

It wasn’t always easy though. There was a time when genealogists were not taken seriously – mainly because little was known about the profession.

Fast forward 22 years, and Danny is a regular guest on BBC’s Heir Hunters – due to return to our screens soon – and his business boasts a turnover of £7million.

Finders International hires around 100 staff across its London, Edinburgh, Dublin and Australian offices and has also launched satellite offices in the US and South Africa and is trying to expand in these markets.

The heir hunting industry has also matured since 1998, when his business was launched.

t’s now a highly competitive industry, which is why Danny is reluctant to talk about profits, and the probate detective services are regularly sought out by councils and solicitors that don’t have the capacity, funding or manpower to do in-depth genealogical searches.

The heir hunting industry is not regulated by any official governmental bodies or agencies but it has taken steps to self-regulate and also upholds the rules of the Professional Paralegal Register.

To keep the industry in check, Danny created the first international body – the International Association of Professional Probate Hunters.

The IAPPR now represents 12 international companies spread across the world.

Are large windfalls common?

Danny says: ‘While there are plenty of cases where large estate values are discovered in the millions, in the majority of cases however individual entitlements are not likely to be large.’

Large windfalls are rare because estates often need to be divided by all of the next of kin.

At the moment average estate values are typically between £20,000–£50,000 according to Finders International.

Danny points out that in one case £10,000 was shared between 17 eligible beneficiaries.

But large pay outs are possible too. In one case £650,000 was left to one individual from a relative they did not even know they had while in another a nice and aunt were reunited after three decades with a £250,000 inheritance.

How does ‘heir hunting’ work?

An heir hunter will approach you by sending a letter or calling you to say that you’re due an inheritance.

They may not and disclose who the deceased is, but they may give you an estimate on your inheritance.

If you agree to go ahead with the investigation, they should give you a contract stating that their company will be hired to investigate and locate the inheritance.

The consumer protection rights of cancellation of contract extends to potential heirs who sign up to an heir hunter.

It means customers have up to 14 days to change their minds if they’re not comfortable with the process.

If you agree to hire the company and pay the commission – which can be anything from 15-25 per cent or higher, the rest of the risk will be taken on by the heir hunter.

But it’s possible to negotiate this fee.

Danny says his average fee is 20 per cent but it could be more for complex cases. ‘If there’s a risky case that requires high investment we could charge more.

‘We once had a case where we had to excavate a body for a DNA test. We could’ve lost everything but luckily the DNA test was positive.’

After the contract is signed the heir hunter will take on the risk and research.

Danny says: ‘This can involve everything from raiding the national archives, census reports, war records, trawling through insolvency documents and of course embarking on a will search – one of the most important pieces in the puzzle of distributing assets to heirs (if there is one).

‘It’s this entire suite of services which is the value Finders brings.’

Watch out for scams

Heir hunting is a long established, legitimate business. That’s not to say that criminals haven’t tried to take advantage of the fame that the industry has attracted through the popular BBC series.

Danny says: ‘There’s been a few cases where people have posed as heir hunters or are heir hunters on an amateur level that don’t understand their legal requirements.

‘We’re very easy to check up on. We have formed a voluntary regulatory body but there are other ways to check up on a company such as through Trading Standards and the Association of Professional Genealogists.’

There shouldn’t be any ‘hidden charges’ and heir hunters don’t ask for money upfront.

They typically work together with solicitors that specialise in wills and probate.

Solicitors fees don’t form part of an heir hunters commission and are charged separately.

Fees are deducted after the estate is wound up and before the assets are distributed to the eligible and surviving family members.

Not all cases fetch a fee. In the last 12 months Finders International completed 1,342 cases and, of those, 531 were pro bono.

Danny says: ‘We have relationships with local authorities and we often help them solve cases where people die in their care without a will or next of kin’.

If they don’t find any heirs it’s the local authorities that are responsible for funeral costs but sometimes Finders International will take on the costs.

Danny says: We have a funeral fund that we use to pay for public sector funerals, commonly known as pauper’s funerals.’

International expansion

Danny believes social isolation is only set to increase as populations continue to grow.

He says: ‘More people are living alone and this will lead to more assets remaining unclaimed, especially across borders.’

His next steps are to increase Finders International’s international footprint and getting to grips with legislation in other countries.

While the industry is now recognised, there are a limited number of professionals serving it and the tracing work, although helped by technology and social media, is onerous.

But Danny wouldn’t have it any other way. ‘I started off as a sole trader and now employ over 100 staff. The life changing experiences I’ve been a part of has been very rewarding.’

This article originally appeared on This Is Money.

Although the term ‘heir hunter’ might only be familiar to you through the BBC daytime show of the same name, it is actually a real job, and it could be that, one day, an heir hunter might contact you.

Heir hunters, also called probate detectives or genealogist researchers, are tasked with the job of finding family members after people die intestate (ie they die without leaving a will) and there is no immediate family to inherit their estate, or when there is a will and beneficiaries are mentioned, but there is trouble finding them. Since it is a rare thing for someone to die and not have at least one living relative, no matter how distant, it is in the heir hunter’s interests to find them. If not, after a period of time – currently 12 years – the entire estate will be passed to the government’s treasury department. Once that happens, even if a relative is subsequently found, the money cannot be returned.

Once an heir hunter finds a case to proceed with, their first step is to create a family tree for the deceased person. They will need to investigate and dig deep into archives in order to find various branches of the tree, and ascertain who is the rightful heir of the estate. Although they have 12 years before the government can take the estate, there is still a time element involved as there will be various different heir hunting firms working on the same case. The first one to find the beneficiary and sign them to the firm will receive the commission.

Commission can range from anywhere between 10 and 30 percent (plus VAT) of the total estate, although some firms are now charging a fixed fee instead. Depending on the size of the estate, this could be a cheaper way of receiving an inheritance.

If an heir hunting firm gets in touch with you regarding a potential inheritance, don’t panic and sign the first contract you see – you could be better of waiting to see what other offers and ‘deals’ you are given by other firms. This could be the difference between many thousands of pounds.

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Published by fleetwoodheirhunting

Welcome to Fleetwood Heir Hunting Services Limited. We have a wide range of services designed to trace heirs and beneficiaries to unclaimed intestate cases and unclaimed financial assets. We focus on tracing living people who are entitled to claim or receive money under the terms of a will or as a result of intestacy, often where they are unaware of their entitlement. The Fleetwood Heir Hunting Services has a combined 40 years experience in Bona Vacantia, Genealogy Research, Heir Hunting, Unclaimed Estates and Family Tree Research. We are based in Croydon in Surrey but our services cover the whole of the UK. View all posts by fleetwoodheirhunting

The number of probate genealogy companies has grown since we first filmed ‘Heir Hunters’ with the BBC back in 2004. Few people knew of our work. We called ourselves ‘Heir Hunters’ and the TV production company named the show after it. What audiences saw on TV was only a small part of our work and this encouraged people to try their hand at tracing missing heirs. However, the reality is more complex than what the cameras filmed and the influx of new entrants has led to an increase in fraud and improper management of estate assets. That’s why we’re on a mission to shine a light on bad business practices in our industry.

In recent months, we have become aware of genealogy firms claiming to offer professional services for heirs to an estate. However, upon closer inspection, we identified gaps in the information they provided, perhaps to mask their lack of experience, or maybe to hide their identity and prevent anyone from verifying their claims.

What did we find?

When you go online and search for an heir hunter or genealogist, you’ll come across many advertisements and websites. At first sight, their web presence might look professional, like the example of a company called “The Heir Hunters” – but look on their ‘About us’ page and none of their staff are presented.

How to be an heir hunter

Celtic Research is upfront with its clients, so compare the example above, with our team page: everyone has a name, photo, personal statement and their defined role. The public should beware of companies that do not name a single director, or representative. If you see a lack of transparency, you should ask: Who and what are they trying to hide?

Another firm called, Family Wise Ltd., is misusing the logos of reputable institutions on their company stationery without permission. They have a prominent section in all their correspondence with logos from the BBC, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and Companies House:

How to be an heir hunter

Our investigation can reveal that Family Wise Ltd. do not have permission to use any of these three logos and action is being taken by these institutions against this firm. In their reply to us, Companies House stated that Family Wise “are not able to use our logo for promotional purposes or to give the impression we endorse or work in partnership with them”.

You can also see on their invoice that they charge additional estate administration fees, which should have formed part of the full service they provide. We have already highlighted such malpractices in our previous article.

Not surprisingly, there is much confusion about how to figure out whether a genealogy firm is “real” or “legitimate”. Just have a look at the online forum of the Money Saving Expert:

How to be an heir hunter

At the time of writing we can confirm that, Windsor Probate, who are mentioned in this forum, were not registered as a data controller with the ICO -in breach of the General Data Protection Regulation 2018 (GDPR). Windsor Probate manage sensitive personal client data and are required to register with the ICO, but our work uncovered their lack of compliance with the law.

How to be an heir hunter

We hope our work helps you identify a company you can trust to act in your best interest.

Follow these 4 steps before signing a contract with anyone claiming to be an heir hunter:

  • Look through the firm’s website and see if it can provide information about the company and their team. Beware if they are afraid to show you who they are.
  • Check if they are registered with Companies House and ICO by searching for their name on those websites.
  • Check if they’re affiliated with the bodies they claim to have an association with
  • Contact your solicitor if you are unsure about what to do

Prevention is key – so stay tuned for Celtic Research’s upcoming articles with more specialist advice. Get in touch if you have more questions!

STEP Endorses heir hunters fees

Finders, the international probate genealogy firm, have today welcomed the guidance produced by STEP for Personal Representatives and Trustees on (Probate) Genealogists (sometimes known as Heir Hunters) fees, which endorses the beneficiary contingency fee.

Finders, the international probate genealogy firm, have today welcomed the guidance produced by the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP) for Personal Representatives and Trustees on (Probate) Genealogists (sometimes known as Heir Hunters) fees, which endorses the beneficiary contingency fee. The STEP guidance, issued to 6,000 of its UK members, sets out issues for a personal representative to consider, when hiring professional probate genealogists to find heirs entitled to inherit under an estate. It highlights the importance of taking ‘reasonable steps to find all those who are entitled’ by employing a ‘genealogical research firm to achieve this’.

STEP’s guidance acknowledges the advantage of several fee models, but crucially, endorses the beneficiary contingency fee; Finders’ most popular fee option. The STEP guidance states that the advantage of the contingency fee model is that ‘known relatives of the deceased do not directly suffer the expense of tracing relatives that have lost touch with the family.’

Commenting on the STEP guidance, Daniel Curran, Director of Finders said:

“We’re incredibly pleased that STEP has chosen to endorse the heir hunter contingency fee model. The STEP guidance acknowledges the importance of commission based contingency fees, which ensure that all cases can be resolved, including those where the search for a missing heir is simply not undertaken or, where the estate of known heirs is used up in fees paid for searching for missing heirs.

“We have seen many instances of heir hunter firms charging only by the hourly rate racking up bills running into the tens of thousands of pounds. With unscrupulous heir hunters offering only an hourly rate paid by the general estate there is clearly no incentive to finish the job. In fact you could argue that these heir hunters want the job to last as long as possible! This is where the heir hunter’s contingency fee option is of most reassurance as the heir hunter can only be paid if they successfully locate living heirs who retain their services on a commission basis. This commission is expressed as a percentage of the final net sum due to the heir, thus if the estate becomes insolvent the heir hunter receives nothing. On an hourly rate the fees themselves that an heir hunter may charge could be the very cause of the estate becoming insolvent

“Tracing heirs and locating unknown beneficiaries is complex, specialist work, requiring expertise and experience. In our experience a choice of fee option is vital to a healthy and competitive market and a good firm of probate genealogists (or heir hunters as they are sometimes known) will be keen to find the best fit for the consumer and discuss a variety of fee options and costing methods. This should always include the option for beneficiary contingency fees, which are currently Finders’ most popular fee option.”

The number of probate genealogy companies has grown since we first filmed ‘Heir Hunters’ with the BBC back in 2004. Few people knew of our work. We called ourselves ‘Heir Hunters’ and the TV production company named the show after it. What audiences saw on TV was only a small part of our work and this encouraged people to try their hand at tracing missing heirs. However, the reality is more complex than what the cameras filmed and the influx of new entrants has led to an increase in fraud and improper management of estate assets. That’s why we’re on a mission to shine a light on bad business practices in our industry.

In recent months, we have become aware of genealogy firms claiming to offer professional services for heirs to an estate. However, upon closer inspection, we identified gaps in the information they provided, perhaps to mask their lack of experience, or maybe to hide their identity and prevent anyone from verifying their claims.

What did we find?

When you go online and search for an heir hunter or genealogist, you’ll come across many advertisements and websites. At first sight, their web presence might look professional, like the example of a company called “The Heir Hunters” – but look on their ‘About us’ page and none of their staff are presented.

How to be an heir hunter

Celtic Research is upfront with its clients, so compare the example above, with our team page: everyone has a name, photo, personal statement and their defined role. The public should beware of companies that do not name a single director, or representative. If you see a lack of transparency, you should ask: Who and what are they trying to hide?

Another firm called, Family Wise Ltd., is misusing the logos of reputable institutions on their company stationery without permission. They have a prominent section in all their correspondence with logos from the BBC, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and Companies House:

How to be an heir hunter

Our investigation can reveal that Family Wise Ltd. do not have permission to use any of these three logos and action is being taken by these institutions against this firm. In their reply to us, Companies House stated that Family Wise “are not able to use our logo for promotional purposes or to give the impression we endorse or work in partnership with them”.

You can also see on their invoice that they charge additional estate administration fees, which should have formed part of the full service they provide. We have already highlighted such malpractices in our previous article.

Not surprisingly, there is much confusion about how to figure out whether a genealogy firm is “real” or “legitimate”. Just have a look at the online forum of the Money Saving Expert:

How to be an heir hunter

At the time of writing we can confirm that, Windsor Probate, who are mentioned in this forum, were not registered as a data controller with the ICO -in breach of the General Data Protection Regulation 2018 (GDPR). Windsor Probate manage sensitive personal client data and are required to register with the ICO, but our work uncovered their lack of compliance with the law.

How to be an heir hunter

We hope our work helps you identify a company you can trust to act in your best interest.

Follow these 4 steps before signing a contract with anyone claiming to be an heir hunter:

  • Look through the firm’s website and see if it can provide information about the company and their team. Beware if they are afraid to show you who they are.
  • Check if they are registered with Companies House and ICO by searching for their name on those websites.
  • Check if they’re affiliated with the bodies they claim to have an association with
  • Contact your solicitor if you are unsure about what to do

Prevention is key – so stay tuned for Celtic Research’s upcoming articles with more specialist advice. Get in touch if you have more questions!

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Have you been contacted by an Heir Hunter and are unsure what to do ? if so this article explains the important points to know.

Why have I been contacted ?

The chances are that a distant relative may well have died and left no will. If so this means that the deceased persons estate will be subject to the intestacy rules which provide an order of entitlement as to who can inherit. The persons entitled will be surviving blood relatives. Researchers will have identified you as possibly one of those beneficially entitled to the estate of the deceased.

Who has asked the heir hunter to contact me ?

It may well be the case that the deceased died and left no will and a relative is applying for probate and you are a beneficiary, a solicitor may have instructed the heir hunting company or alternatively the deceased’s details maybe with the Governments Treasury solicitors.

Choosing the right Heir Hunter : important points to consider

Always check that the heir hunter is genuine from a credible organization.

Whilst there are a number of heir hunters always look for the following :-

  • Do they have professional indemnity insurance ?
  • Do they have insurance facilities with Insurers to cover for missing beneficiaries
  • Are they registered for data protection ?
  • Do they have ISO accreditation ?
  • Are the FCA accredited ?
  • Do they provide a guarantee that you will only pay any fees at the conclusion of the estate ?

If you need help and assistance with a probate matter, or have concerns relating to being contacted by an heir hunter, please call us on 0845 9011 586.