Posted in Fairness Campaigns
Last November we launched our campaign against double charging for birth, marriage and death certificates with an article explaining why we believe the practice is unlawful. Several law firms have already accepted that our analysis is correct – now, in a further development, an heir hunter continues to defend the indefensible.
On the subject of charges for birth, marriage and death certificates, the January newsletter of the Heir Hunters Association (HHA) concedes that: “[Anglia Research] is correct such costs cannot be levied on their clients’ share or those of non signers unless they agree.”
This shouldn’t be in question. It’s obvious that when there are multiple beneficiaries to an estate, who have signed with several different probate genealogy firms, those firms should only ever levy fees of any sort from their own client’s share of the estate – even in cases where their own client is also the personal representative.
However, the HHA newsletter continues to advocate that heir hunters can double charge their own clients, asserting that, “If a researcher’s contract allows for certs etc to be charged this is a legitimate cost against the estate applicable only to their contracted clients”.
The flawed logic used to arrive at this conclusion involves an indefensible comparison of the role of a speculative heir hunter with an estate administrator. The writer of the HHA article suggests that an heir hunter can legitimately recoup not only the costs of certificates, but also other “direct costs” such as “documents, legal charges, mileage, etc”.
To us, this is an abuse of the client relationship.
At Anglia Research, our view is that when probate researchers are already benefiting from a percentage fee agreement, the costs of certificates and other research purchased by an heir hunter to identify prospective clients are not legitimate estate expenses and should never be reimbursed from the estate.
According to the HHA newsletter, our view is “discriminatory against low value estates and inheritances. The cost of certificates £50 – £150 is negligible against estates where the commission equates to thousands of pounds but not where commission is a few hundred pounds. It is indeed actually possible for a researcher to be out of pocket where there is very low value and lengthy tree stems.”
Why are they wrong?
Bear in mind that heir hunters can attract a beneficiary with the offer of a low percentage finder’s fee. However, when further charges are later deducted for certificates and other “direct costs” this percentage becomes meaningless.
This is particularly true of small estates, perhaps shared between multiple beneficiaries.
Take the case of a beneficiary whose net share of an estate turns out to be worth £300. Having been lured in with a percentage fee of 10% plus “direct costs” they could end up receiving as little as £70 – considerably less than the £225 they would have received had the heir hunter charged a 25% finder’s fee with no so-called “direct costs” added to the bill.
The world of probate research is full of unknowns. Often, when contracts are signed, no-one knows the value of the estate, what debts it carries or how many people it is to be shared amongst.
In the face of such uncertainty, the percentage fee (with no added charges) provides a degree of clarity and transparency. Simple arithmetic means that the beneficiary can rest assured that whatever happens:
- they will receive a larger share of their inheritance than the probate researcher who traced them;
- there is no possibility that they will be out of pocket.
This is not the case when the costs of certificates – and whatever else the heir hunter cares to charge for – are bundled onto the bill, either because they have been taken from the gross estate or from individual shares.
Further background to the HHA
The HHA is owned and run by Heir Hunters Researchers Ltd, a company that buys and sells leads in cases of intestacy and whose managing director markets what he describes as his expertise to executive members of the HHA with a £5,000-a-year price tag.
Anyone who is tempted by this offer may like to know that examples on which he bases his training arise from an intestacy within his own family. However, these published family trees show flawed research, with at least two overlooked family branches.
At Anglia Research, we have investigated hundreds of the estates on the bona vacantia list and we are aware of many that will ultimately vest in the Crown because there are no surviving entitled relatives. So, last year, when Heir Hunters Researchers Ltd claimed one of these estates (worth £93,000 plus over 10 years’ interest) we questioned the validity of their research.
Our direct warnings to Heir Hunters Researchers Ltd were ignored and they distributed the estate to a wholly unconnected family who were not entitled to it. Now the family have to pay it back to the Crown.
What is even more astounding is that even for this high value case the managing director of Heir Hunters Researchers Ltd (who is also the writer of the HHA newsletter) received a 20% finder’s fee, and charged administrative fees plus the refund of certificate costs.
It should be a matter of concern for everyone who cares about the reputation of professional probate genealogists that amateur heir hunters are taking advice from someone capable of such fundamental research errors and who promotes ethically indefensible charging arrangements.