Updated: Jun 2, 2021
Local authorities have long been under scrutiny when officers decide to use the services of heir hunters. A spate of recent press coverage of sector research into these relationships, including articles in the Times, the Express and on LocalGov.co.uk, indicates that key institutions across the UK are taking notice of this issue. Positive change may be on the horizon.
The problem has been picked up by the press after research published by Anglia Research, a company operating in the probate genealogy sector, showed that many councils are privately providing heir hunters with details about people who have died with no obvious next of kin. The heir hunters offer, as a free ‘favour’ to the council, to search for distant relatives.
In England & Wales when an individual dies intestate with no obvious next of kin, the local authority should refer the estate to the Government Legal Department’s Bona Vacantia Division for placement on its unclaimed estates list. Relatives may see the advertisement for themselves, and if not, heir hunters will speculatively undertake research to locate entitled kin. A degree of competitiveness keeps ‘finder’s fees’ low and also encourages competent and comprehensive research.
However, recent years have seen an increase in local authorities instead using the private services of heir hunters to locate entitled relatives, although they have no responsibility to do so. In truth, they have been sold the benefits by smooth-speaking heir hunters whose true motive is to obtain exclusive leads, from which they can earn rich rewards.
The drawbacks are numerous, and yet with seeming indifference to the best interests of relatives, many councils have their heads in the sand about the problem. For instance, succumbing to the heir hunter’s sales pitch, a council officer privately passes information about a deceased houseowner to an heir hunter. This is a windfall! Knowing that the matter will never become public knowledge, the heir hunter, often verbally misrepresenting as acting under council instruction, identifies distant cousins and charges them as much as 40% of their inheritance for locating them (compared with 3%-5% on ‘the open market’).
But the lack of transparency has other drawbacks. One branch of the family went to Australia in 1905? Too bad, forget any difficult research, no-one will know if their entitled descendants are omitted. Accurate research? It’s all done in private, so who knows? Suffice it to say that sample investigations have uncovered an alarming number of errors by heir hunters. Incredibly, some heir hunters have even located and enabled distribution to incorrect families.
Are local authorities concerned? Some seem not to be so.
Anglia Research, which employs more accredited genealogists and independently regulated staff than any other UK probate research company and places significant value on accountability, professional ethics and reputation, have set up a number of fairness campaigns against endemic problems in the sector, such as the damaging practices described above. The company is also well known for offering assistance to beneficiaries
who have fallen victim to heir hunter negligence and malpractice, helping them to obtain justice.
Their latest research surveyed all 359 local authorities in England & Wales and indicated that intestacies rose sharply during Covid-19, with the reported number of individuals dying intestate increasing by 60 percent between March and May 2019 and the same period in 2020. Only 22 percent of the councils that responded to the survey were confident that heir hunters operate transparently and honestly, while only 11 percent agreed that heir hunters charge beneficiaries fairly.
However, only 12 percent of all local authorities reported having measures in place to try to prevent heir hunters from overcharging beneficiaries and less than 25 percent confirmed that they authenticate claims on estates to ensure accuracy. Unsurprisingly, the research prompted a flurry of interest from the press and other institutions concerned about intestacies and local authorities’ anti-competitive practices when using heir hunters.
In their article, the Times noted the “darker side to the market” in which councils may be “striking backroom deals with heir hunters, some of which may overcharge beneficiaries” and seemed to provide tacit support for campaigners’ calls on government to take steps to ensure that local authorities allow market competition in the genealogy sector.
The article reported that a number of lawyers specialising in wills and probate believe councils should be “banned” from the use of heir hunters. The paper interviewed several law firm partners. James Cook of Collyer Bristow pointed out that this “controversial” industry lacks mandatory regulation and that fees for locating beneficiaries can be “grossly disproportionate to the value of the unclaimed estate”. He astutely commented that “removing the ability of heir hunters to compete does not appear to be in anyone's interests except for the chosen heir hunter.” Jenny Cutts of Wedlake Bell clearly affirmed the need for individuals to “tread with caution” when contacted by heir hunters.
The Times is not the only publication to have remarked upon the research. An article in the Express summarised the findings and noted the potential inheritance tax implications. The article also quoted Anglia Research’s Executive Director, Philip Turvey, who commented that there had been a “surge of unqualified and unethical practitioners” in the probate genealogy industry since the popularity of the TV programme Heir Hunters, along with a “steady rise” in arrangements between local authorities and heir hunters. Combined, these trends may have resulted in many beneficiaries getting caught up in “expensive, time-consuming court cases to obtain the inheritance they are rightfully owed”.
The local government news website LocalGov also featured a piece by Philip Turvey on how local authorities can protect themselves and bereaved beneficiaries from unethical heir hunters. The article emphasised the need for local authorities to follow government guidelines and refer intestacies to the Bona Vacantia Division where applicable. Where there are known to be next of kin but they cannot be easily located, local authorities should refer the case to three respectable probate genealogy firms simultaneously, to maintain the benefits of market competition on fees and the quality of the research.
The article acknowledged that the genealogy industry should also take responsibility for their practices, for example by signing up to the independent regulatory authority, the Association of Probate Researchers which requires corporate members to avoid charging excessive fees. While local authority usage of heir hunting services is unlikely to end soon, the interest sparked by the new research does suggest that, as in many areas of society in the wake of Covid-19, there is a new appetite to move towards more ethical practices.
Anglia Research has offered timely solutions, suggesting that councils publish a public list of cases on their website or make referrals to a number of genealogists at the same time to maintain the positive effects of competition. Using these measures, councils can benefit from probate genealogy services at no cost, while rightly protecting the rights, freedoms and interests of beneficiaries.