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- Apr 20, 2021
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Understanding the complex yet fascinating world of probate research otherwise known as “Heir Hunting’’
Global heir hunter and star of the BBC’s popular TV series “Heir Hunters” Danny Curran of Finders International provides insight and latest challenges from the world of probate research. Heir hunting - reuniting next of kin with inheritance they did not know they were due – provides a hugely valuable public service, yet it’s an industry fraught with misunderstanding and some unscrupulous operators. Here’s what to look out for before engaging with firms operating in this industry.
Raising standards: How to select and instruct a probate research firm
In France and Germany Probate Research and verification of intestate estates using professional firms is considered a vital role, on a par with the legal profession and often an essential part of the estate administration process - so why is it in the UK we seem to find it harder to place the probate genealogy role fairly and squarely in estate administration process?
The fact that an industry is unregulated is not necessarily a problem. I have enquired several times about various government initiatives to see if certain bodies would include the probate research industry in their regulatory regime, but, as with many other industries, with a relatively low combined turnover, the government is reluctant to get involved.
So, we are left with self-regulation and, in many cases, this can be very useful as a guide to instructing a firm. However, self-regulation and memberships of associations also comes with caveats and conditions. Looking at the positive side, any firm who subjects themselves to any form of third party scrutiny or self-regulation, must feel a degree of confidence that they are ‘doing the right thing’ and my own firm has sought out numerous forms of compliance, listed below for reference, that hopefully will ease the minds of instructing solicitors and members of the public alike - the latter, remember, must feel reassured that the probate research firm are genuine and not operating a complex scam.
Inheritance features heavily in the world of bogus online emails and most of us by now will have received pleas from abroad asking us to accept several million pounds on behalf of a ‘victim’ of an oppressive regime abroad.
What to look for: when instructing a probate research firm
Word of mouth and reputation is of always a good starting point, but make sure you are dealing with a proper professional company.
Firms can appear to list ‘offices’ around the world just by placing keywords on their website “Paris, Rome, Athens, New York” and can of course use an impressive serviced office address in a large city like London. This is not unique to the world of probate research of course and is basic common sense, however, before we became the main provider of genealogical research services to one the country’s largest estate administration firms, it was found that they were using the home office of an ex-employee to complete family trees on crucial intestacy research, often worth vast sums of money to the heirs involved. To their credit, as soon as they realised what was going on, they asked their staff to stop this practice and refer work to Finders instead. But to think that even large corporations may still be treating vital research as something an amateur can do effectively is somewhat disturbing and also puts estate administrators and their advisors at unnecessary risk.
A guide to professional standards available to probate research firms
This list is not exhaustive and by no means are these standards a requirement, they simply point solicitors in the right direction when choosing who to work with.
This table (shown at the end of article) shows that, even when working in the unregulated sector, it is possible to acquire some meaningful standards and training.
What can go wrong, will go wrong!
The other main pitfall I see in the UK is the reliance on family testimony without independent verification, to establish information about the devolution of an estate. There is still a degree of alarming naivety in this practice, which I see happening frequently.
I recall an intestate estate of around £400,000 we worked on many years ago, where the solicitor wanted a ‘simple verification’ that his client was the sole heir to the estate. The client was an elderly lady who nobody had any reason to doubt when she claimed to be her late brother’s sole surviving next of kin. However, in yet another extraordinary tale (we have many), it seems that the lady in question had simply disowned her nephew many years earlier and didn’t recognise him as part of her family any longer. His ‘crime’ in her eyes was to grow a beard to his waist and wander around his east London housing estate shouting at everyone (‘bringing shame on the family’). In fact, once we had identified and located him, it was established he had for many years suffered from a mental illness. When found he was one of the gentlest and kindest middle-aged men you could imagine. In this case half the estate rightly passed to him.
I have simply lost count of the number of children, siblings and half-blood siblings that have been overlooked or forgotten by the clients when referring cases to us over the last 23 years. It’s not always deliberate I should add; families do lose touch, large families forget how many relatives they have, children are born out of wedlock and to single parents and, since 1927, adoption has allowed the adoptive family to legally inherit.
Insurance - now a necessity?
I have been emphasising and endlessly stressing the importance of a ‘comfort’ policy against missing or unknown beneficiary claims for many years.
Whilst in Scotland ‘Bond of Caution’ provides a degree of comfort it is still not a replacement for missing beneficiary indemnity insurance and the clarity around this issue is still not apparent to all concerned. Perhaps ‘Bond of Caution’ is providing a false sense of security? It’s still better than nothing though and I see vast number of estates being distributed with no insurance cover, despite my firm’s quick and easy provision of policies provided (through Aviva) at modest rates. So why do people resist insurance?
Well, for a start, unless you use a recognised firm of probate researchers, the insurance company will probably not accept your genealogists’ report as evidence. Using a recognised firm will often mean that an insurance policy is instantly approved, saving many hours of practitioners’ time having to get the required evidence together to satisfy the insurance company or shopping around to find the right terms within the policy at the right cost.
DNA evidence as seen in more and more cases, can replace the traditional certificated evidence of kinship, making comfort policies more important than ever. My preference would be to make insurance a statutory requirement on all estates of over £15,000 or where a small estate indemnity is not being used.
Of course, the basic professional indemnity insurance is a must and things may go wrong from time to time, that’s life – the important thing is to be covered.
Case Study – how Finders International dealt with a difficult case with overseas heirs
An example of how co-operation between probate researchers, solicitors, the local authority and the Coroner worked to resolve the unusual case of Mary Burgess(Deceased)
We were referred this case by a Solicitor via a Coroner’s Office who knew that the Deceased was a widow, but had no information about relatives.
They were told by a friend that there was a Will, however the Deceased was a hoarder and an initial search did not reveal a Will in the property.
The risk at the outset was that there may be a Will and if one was found, we may be unable to recover our costs. In any event, there was nobody to issue formal instructions or to pay us a fee. Therefore, we took on the risk on a contingency fee basis as the only viable option.
We proceeded initially to try and find someone entitled to deal with the funeral and to formally undertake a search and clearance of the property.
Family were identified and located and solicitors were instructed. The solicitor then contacted the Coroner.
The family were cousins once removed and didn’t want to deal with the funeral themselves, so they instructed the solicitors to deal with this on their behalf. We reassured the potential beneficiaries that they wouldn’t be liable for the funeral costs.
After thorough searches were made we found a Will, however, when we looked into this further, we found that the sole beneficiary named had pre-deceased and so the estate reverted to an Intestacy.
We are often referred cases where the deceased person is a hoarder and this can cause problems for Local Authorities when they try to determine whether there is a Will or next of kin, as the property may be difficult or unsafe to search.
Lengthy investigations were needed to locate every beneficiary involved, however, we were able to send an interim report to the solicitors within a few weeks of the referral, so that they could proceed with the administering the estate. This also meant that they could immediately search the property for important documents and then clear, secure and sell the house, so that it didn’t become a focus of anti-social behaviour or an environmental hazard.
This case took us to France, Australia and America. The beneficiaries in America refused to respond to us despite contacting them via letter, phone, email and social media. In the end, we arranged for our local agent to visit them, in order to confirm their details.
This personal touch was what was needed to reassure them that it was a genuine matter and the case was concluded successfully after many twists and turns.
The transpired to be worth £450,000.
Probate Researcher Fees
There are four basic fee models available from most professional probate research firms and all are perfectly acceptable. Choice is imperative in order to cover a variety of situations. As in all businesses, if an untrustworthy provider is selected they may abuse any fee option chosen, so its more about which company you use than what method of charging they adopt.
The four main options are: Contingency fees (where a beneficiary signs a percentage based agreement with the probate research firm), an estate/trust contingency fee, where the Executor agrees a percentage based fee from a named beneficiary’s entitlement, a budget fee paid by the estate and a fixed fee paid by the estate. Firms may name these fees differently of course, but the basic models exist with most firms.
Contingency fees are most popular as they are seen as fairer in many circumstances, being payable only on a successful distribution, but an agreed budget or a fixed fee at the expense of the estate may be more appropriate dependent on circumstances.
When a beneficiary signs a contingency fee agreement with my firm, they are given 14 days to cancel and the name of the deceased or asset is made known to them as well as any possible value of their inheritance. In short, they make an informed choice to retain our services. I am an Associate of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators and am comfortable negotiating to settle any concerns, whether it’s about a fee or any other aspect of the process. Contingency fees are often the only option when working on an estate where there are no known next of kin at all as there is nobody authorised to pay a research fee or make advance arrangements about our fee. If a solicitor has no instructions they cannot agree a fee based on the possibility they may receive instructions once next of kin are found.
Budget or fixed fees paid by the general estate diminish the whole estate value which next of kin who knew the deceased often see as unfair (“I knew the deceased their entire life, why should I subsidise research to find long-lost family who have never even heard of the deceased?”).
The watchword is ‘reasonable’. There are dangers of being hooked into using a firm based on a cheap initial quote - cheap does not equal better as solicitors will know! I have encountered solicitors charging £100 per hour and others charging over £500 per hour. It is often true that you ‘get what you pay for’. This is not the time to cut corners.
About the Author
Danny Curran is one of the UK’s foremost authorities and renowned entrepreneurs in the field probate research. Having appeared in the mainstream national press, in print and broadcast, more than 100 times, he has shared his knowledge on genealogy, the probate industry and fascinating human-interest stories for nearly 30 years. Danny founded Finders International in 1997 as a sole trader and his company now has offices in London, Edinburgh & Dublin, employing over 100 people and has featured in Forbes Magazine in the US for his entrepreneurial feats. He founded the Probate Research industry’s first international regulatory body in 2016, the International Association of
Professional Probate Researchers, which now has member firms from around the world. Finders
International are a main firm on the BBC1 Series ‘Heir Hunters’ and won 5 awards at the inaugural UK Probate Research Awards in 2019, including ‘Best UK Probate Research Firm’.
Finders International can be contacted on
+44 (0)20 7490 4935
or via www.findersinternational.co.uk