Heir hunting – worth a fortune?



HEIR hunting made headlines recently when Padraic Grennan of Erin Research – specialising in probate genealogy – traced the next of kin of Hilary Smith and her husband Nicholas, whose bodies were found 18 months after they died in their rural Tipperary home. Grennan’s investigators found a son of Mrs Smith’s from a previous relationship who had not seen his mother for 55 years and a brother of Mr Smith’s living in London.

Usually though, heir hunting involves inheritance where next of kin cannot be found. Inheritance and wills can be a great source of curiosity, relatives want to know if they will be remembered. When I wrote a legal column there were lots of queries about wills. Would it be all right to unlock the uncle’s cupboard where he had his will to see what was in it? That sort of thing.

You might suppose that families stay in touch or that those with means might want to know where their money would go after they passed away but this isn’t always the case. Beneficiaries, who are far away may not be easy to find or due to fractured families the next of kin may not be known. Also people may die intestate – without having made a will – and surviving relatives entitled to inherit may not be readily traceable.

So are heir hunting scenarios common here? “We deal with hundreds of cases a year,” says Maeve Mullin of Dublin-based Finders International. The 11-strong Finders team deal mainly with cases referred to them by solicitors where beneficiaries or next of kin cannot be traced. “It’s more common in the UK than in Ireland; in rural areas here, neighbours of the deceased might sometimes know of their relatives. It’s fascinating work. This year, for instance, we have traced relatives in every corner of Ireland.”

The firm which has offices in Dublin, London, Edinburgh and Sydney plus an international team of agents and researchers are involved in hunting heirs around the world. The UK accounts for the biggest number of searches, followed by the main destination for Irish migrants, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Stories of long- lost relatives inheriting large fortunes are rare though. ”When we contact people they sometimes get very excited thinking they are going to inherit millions and we try to manage their expectations, ”says Maeve. Situations where the proceeds of the sale of an average home would be divided between 15-20 cousins who are entitled to inherit are more typical. Tracing involves detailed work using records including birth, marriage, death and other genealogical certificates. Sometimes no heirs may be found, either because the line has died out, the name is too common or the deceased may have given an incorrect date of birth, in these instances the money reverts to the State.

Heirs may do the hunting too. Bona Vacantia Estates website lists unclaimed inheritances in the UK, some of them involving estates belonging to people born in Ireland. The Unclaimed Estates website for Ireland lists 430 deaths of Irish born people since 1997 with unclaimed estates plus an additional 11 for this year in the hope that beneficiaries may come forward before the proceeds of the estate are eventually passed to the State. Visit: https://unclaimedestates.ie/

In these situations, heirs may also do the hunting and Finders International also support potential beneficiaries in submitting their claims. It’s not just a matter of turning up and claiming to be a long-lost relative to claim an inheritance, due diligence has to be observed with appropriate evidence before the estate can be referred to the solicitor involved for distribution.

Probate researchers and heir hunters can be very helpful and make tracing easier, but how can you be certain that a hunter is reputable? For reassurance, check to see if the practitioner belongs to the IAPPR ( the International Association of Professional Probate Researchers, Genealogists and Heir Hunters) which is involved in raising standards in the profession. And how much is it likely to cost? Practitioners charge a percentage of the estate to cover their costs, typically this starts from 10% but depends on the basis on which the trace is undertaken, the value of the estate and so on.

Sometimes heir hunting cases have the making of a riveting novel. I heard of one elderly English woman who inherited $6 million from a distant relative in America. Before she could benefit, she died intestate, the search for about 20 far-flung cousins is still ongoing.


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