Posted in Case Histories, Fairness Campaigns, For Relatives, For Solicitors
At Anglia Research we are committed to helping the victims of negligence and malpractice. In this case history, Philip Turvey describes what happens when potential beneficiaries fall prey to unscrupulous heir hunters who conduct the minimum of research.
Genealogists at Anglia Research were alerted to the case of James Taylor when some details about the distribution of his estate appeared online. Born in the 1920s, James died intestate, a bachelor whose only sibling had long predeceased him. As a result of the work of a well know firm of heir hunters, the estate had passed to his maternal cousins.
Given that Mr Taylor had relatives on both his mother and his father’s side, our suspicions were aroused. We approached Mr Taylor’s paternal relatives only to find that they were completely unaware of their entitlement. The heir hunters involved seem to have made no attempt to trace them, focusing all their efforts on the maternal cousins.
When we completed our research into the paternal family, we contacted the solicitors who were administering the estate – a firm that had been recommended to the maternal relatives by the heir hunters who had originally picked up the case. Their response confirmed our fears: the estate had already been distributed in its entirety.
The conduct of those involved placed the maternal family member who had been appointed as the personal representative (PR) in a position of liability. If a legal claim were to be made, it would be this family member who would be issued with Court proceedings as, strictly speaking, it was her responsibility to ensure that the estate was distributed correctly.
At this stage the solicitors had two options: they could request that the maternal beneficiaries repay some of the money that they received, or pursue a claim on any missing beneficiary indemnity policy that may have been obtained. Fortunately, an insurance policy had been taken out and we were advised that the solicitors planned to make a claim against this policy.
After a long period of silence, the solicitors asked us to confirm that the research into the maternal family was complete. We thought that this was an odd request, as they should have satisfied themselves, before they distributed the estate, that the heir hunters who were originally involved had at least thoroughly researched this side of the family.
Nephews of the half-blood
Nevertheless we set to work and quickly discovered that Mr Taylor’s mother had married twice. As a result of this second marriage, we located two great-nephews of the half-blood to the deceased. Their closer relationship to James Taylor meant that they had a prior claim over both the paternal and maternal cousins and were therefore entitled to the whole estate.
We immediately wrote to the paternal cousins to give them the bad news (at least they got a free family tree out of it) and we advised the solicitors of what we had discovered. There followed the usual period of silence. Perhaps they were embarrassed. After all, if they hadn’t asked us to look into the maternal side of the family, our attention would never have been drawn to the closer relatives. Of course, if we’d had the assignment from the beginning we would naturally have accounted for the closest degrees of relative first, as is the standard practice, and only searched for paternal and maternal cousins in the absence of nearer relatives. We were naturally, albeit mistakenly, under the impression that this precautionary research had already been undertaken by the original heir hunters.
Meanwhile the two heirs informed us that some time after Mr Taylor’s death they had contacted the solicitors handling the estate, only to be told that they were neither related nor entitled as they did not appear on the family tree provided by the original heir hunters.
We eventually grew exasperated with the lack of communication from the solicitors and took the step of contacting the family member who had been appointed as the PR. By law, the solicitors should have been acting on her instructions.
We were astonished when the PR informed us that she knew nothing about the wrongful distribution. The last she had heard from the solicitors was when she had received her cheque. She did not even know that they were making a claim against the insurance policy that was held in her name.
The family historian
The PR provided us with contact details for Sarah, the “family historian”. Most families have someone who takes an interest in their genealogy, and it was well known amongst the maternal cousins that Sarah had researched the family tree.
We weren’t the first to receive Sarah’s contact details. Knowing that she would be able to help with the investigation, the PR had passed her details to the original heir hunters.
When we contacted Sarah, we were amazed to learn that she had informed the original heir hunters that James Taylor’s mother had had a second marriage and that she was sure that there was issue from this.
Quite why they did not act on this information is anyone’s guess.
The insurance policy has now paid out and after several years the correct people have finally received the money they are entitled to. However, the finder’s fee paid to the original heir hunters was never refunded to the estate and, to add insult to injury, the solicitors charged for the work they did rectifying their own mistakes.