The ethics of Heir Hunting

3 August 2015

On a number of occasions in the past two years, I have written about ‘Heir Hunting’ – the term now used for companies who act on behalf of beneficiaries when their relatives have died and left no Will (i.e. their estate is intestate). The BBC series which features several of our competitors has made the phrase more common place. This is, in some ways, a positive. When we engage with potential beneficiaries, they may have seen the series and be aware of ‘the process’. However, sometimes they have a false sense of what the estate value may be as, of course, the cases featured on the series are generally of a higher value!

The television series is a little ‘behind the times’. It mentions that the list comes out on a Thursday. Erm… try every day, at some random time between 9am and 5pm, sometimes with no new cases listed and sometimes with over forty! Without going into the process behind how we decide which cases to choose, how we make contact with potential beneficiaries etc., one of the main questions we are asked very early on is: “How much is the estate worth?” And honestly, when we say we don’t know, we really don’t! The Government Legal Department (GLD) do not disclose the value of estates, generally because they only have one case referral form and are not fully aware of any other assets or the liabilities on the deceased’s estate.

We file the claim on behalf of a family – sometimes a sole beneficiary, sometimes 20+ individuals inheriting varying portions of the estate – and we have no idea of the value until our claim is accepted and the case referral form returned to us to investigate further. How do you break the news of the amount the beneficiary will inherit? On rare occasions, the estate may be insolvent. Even if it is solvent, the estate may be of very low value. The smallest cheque I have ever written was for £11.27, but I will soon be handing over more than £250,000 to a beneficiary. At over 70 years of age, how will s/he cope with the news? This amount of money will be life changing for him/her…. I feel a flight up north coming on…..

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