Heir hunters - The importance of making a valid Will
You may have seen on TV the programme Heir Hunters, following the work of firms who try to track down the distant relatives of a deceased’s estate in circumstances where they have died intestate (without a valid Will).
Whilst being contacted by an heir hunter might be exciting as you could benefit from an inheritance from a long forgotten or even unknown distant relative, you might also want to spare a thought for the people who may have been close to them or looked after them in their final years and receive no financial acknowledgement. A reminder of why it is important for all adults to make a valid Will and to keep it updated.
If you are contacted by an heir hunter, they will typically ask you to sign a contract which means you will pay them a percentage of the inheritance for their services. Usually, the details about who the deceased is will be withheld until the contract has been signed. You may want the advice of a solicitor to advise you before you sign any legal agreements.
You could also try and find out for yourself for free, and you can see a list of unclaimed estates at https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/unclaimed-estates-list
The list may contain estates which are up to 30 years old and anything unclaimed after this date passes to the Crown.
If you have been close to someone who has died and there is no valid Will, then with the help of a solicitor, you might want to approach an heir hunter to help you check if there is anyone with a claim on their estate.
It might come as a surprise to you that you can care for and even live with a ‘family’ member or close friend, but not receive anything from their estate if they die without making a Will. Instead, their ‘distant’ relatives who may not even know that the person even existed, might instead benefit from their estate.
A scenario which is common is that a relative by marriage for example a niece or nephew by marriage passes away and they have been close to them or even lived with them.
In the absence of no obvious family members, the niece or nephew by marriage might assume they would inherit the estate, but in the absence of a Will, the Intestacy Rules apply which have a strict protocol that needs to be followed to determine who should receive the Estate. Sometimes it can take many years to resolve, and this is where heir hunters may get involved, depending on the value of the estate.
Typically, if a person dies without a Will and they are not married or in a cohabitation agreement with or living with someone with whom they own a property as beneficial joint tenants, then their biological children will inherit their estate in equal shares. Adopted children and step-children who have been adopted by their step-parent, also have rights to inherit under Intestacy Rules.
A grandchild or great grandchild can also inherit if their parent or grandparents die before the Intestate person. If the child is aged under 18 then the person who has parental responsibility for them will have responsibility for their inheritance, which is typically held in a trust for them until they are 18.
Other close relatives such as parents, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews may also inherit under intestacy rules in certain circumstances, and in the absence of these close relations, then grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, half uncles and half aunts can also inherit.
Those who can’t inherit where a person dies intestacy are:
• Unmarried partners (often wrongly called common-law partners)
• Partners not in a civil partnership
• Relations by marriage only
• Close friends
In these circumstances, you can apply to the Court for financial provision from the Estate.
Finally, another area to consider is where you think you should have received a share of an Estate and you know there is a Will. You can obtain a copy of the Will once Probate has been granted as the Will becomes a publicly recorded document. If there is a dispute about the distribution of money or personal affects, then you should contact a solicitor for advice.