Posted in Fairness Campaigns

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Here we present a practical model for establishing and managing a panel of three genealogical research firms that will support the local authority’s goals while protecting entitled next of kin as consumers.


Where possible, local authorities should always refer cases of intestacy to the Bona Vacantia Division for publication on the unclaimed estates list (or to the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall in those areas). This will result in the widest possible dissemination of the case details, the maximum competition and consequently the most speedy and accurate resolution.

However, when the net assets of an estate are less than £500, or there is evidence that relatives exist, authorities are forced to resolve the case themselves.

Because they require all relevant cases to be solved – not just those that may prove lucrative for an heir hunter – councils frequently form exclusive relationships with a genealogical research firm or heir hunter who undertakes to handle every case, whatever its value.

Unfortunately, as our research shows, these relationships are opaque and anti-competitive, and tend to adversely affect beneficiaries through inflated finders’ fees or estate misdistribution.

There is, however, a simple method that will inject both competition and a degree of transparency into the council/researcher relationship, while ensuring that every case is dealt with. This method is no more difficult than making a risky referral to a single heir hunter.

A panel that works simultaneously in rotation and in parallel

Using due diligence (checking relevant qualifications, accreditation and professional experience), the council selects three research firms to whom it will refer work.

All three firms (A, B and C) understand that they will be obliged to take a referral if they are mandated to do so, but that every referral will be sent to all three firms simultaneously. When a new case comes up, the council sends a single email referral to their contact in each of the three companies. A single email is sent to all three.

The email should contain all the relevant details that council officers have gathered during their preliminary investigation of the case, including the name and date of death of the intestate, whether a funeral has taken place (or the likely date of the funeral), names of any known or suspected relatives (where available) and their relationship to the deceased, and the estimated size of the estate.

On the first occasion that the council refers a case, Company A is mandated to research it, and this is made clear in the email. The second time a referral is made Company B is mandated to research it, and so on in rotation.

However, in every case the other two companies receive the email referral as well. This means that they can assess the referral details and decide whether to research the case in competition with the mandated company. When they themselves are mandated they have to take the case. When they are not mandated they make a decision whether or not to pursue it, based on the details available – just as they do with any case advertised by the Bona Vacantia Division.

Transparency ensures that competition arises whenever it is needed

Researchers are alert to the clues that suggest that a case will result in a finder’s fee.

If, for example, Company C is mandated to find the relatives of someone who died intestate but with no assets, companies A and B will leave the case to C to solve because it is clearly not lucrative. If, however, the mandated company receives a referral that involves a £200,000 property, the non-mandated companies will almost certainly decide to investigate and the resulting competition will benefit relatives.

There are only four prerequisites to ensure that the panel works fairly for the council, the heir hunters and any beneficiaries of an intestacy that may be involved:

  • Cases are mandated in strict rotation (A, B, C, A, B, C...).
  • Every email referral makes it clear which of the three companies is mandated.
  • Every email referral is sent to all three companies simultaneously.
  • Every email referral contains all the relevant details of which the council is aware.

Further considerations

Local authorities who follow this model may wish to investigate whether data protection guidelines will allow them to monitor the performance of the companies they use. Although cases can vary significantly in complexity, if companies report back to the council on percentage fees charged to beneficiaries, the time taken to identify them and the specialist expertise employed, it becomes possible to evaluate whether the selected researchers represent good value for members of the public.

Councils should also consider listing intestate estates on their websites in the same way that the Bona Vacantia Division does in its unclaimed estates list. At present several councils follow this practice.


Useful reading: Fairness campaigns