Posted in Fairness Campaigns


As we report elsewhere, anti-competitive practices result in inflated prices. This should be self-evident. What may not be so obvious is that when local authorities refer cases to heir hunters on an exclusive basis they risk adversely affecting the quality of research conducted. In this article we explain why this happens, and also suggest some steps that local authorities can take to ensure good practice.

When several rival research companies work in competition on the same case – as they do on bona vacantia cases, which are openly published – it is much more likely that all branches of a family tree will be thoroughly investigated and that all rightful heirs will receive their entitlement.

Why? Because when researchers work in competition with one another, with the details of a case openly available, the resulting transparency means that mistakes are more likely to be uncovered. In the effort to locate as many beneficiaries as possible, genealogists are motivated to double check, challenge and in effect police the work of other researchers, helping to ensure that no entitled kin are overlooked.

In contrast, when an heir hunter with exclusive knowledge of an intestacy makes an error, perhaps missing a whole branch of a family tree, no-one will be any the wiser – unless the inadequate research is uncovered by chance, or a competent practitioner administering the estate spots the mistake. When overlooked beneficiaries do happen to learn of their missed inheritance, years of litigation can follow, as they seek to obtain their entitlement.

Norfolk County Council passed the case of DBM to a firm of heir hunters. Working in conjunction with solicitors, the firm arranged for the estate to be distributed to the three maternal cousins that they had located. The sole paternal cousin, overlooked by the heir hunters but entitled by the rules of intestacy to 50% of the estate, has now spent several years trying to obtain his entitlement.

A consumer issue

There is no doubt in our minds that when public bodies pass information to heir hunters on an exclusive basis they are increasing the overall likelihood that the resulting research will contain errors.

This is a pressing consumer issue. The examples of bad practice that we include here and in our article on overcharging are mostly cases that we came across by chance. It’s reasonable to assume that they represent only the tip of the iceberg.

Manchester social services referred all intestate deaths to an inexperienced heir hunter. In the case of RML, the heir hunter quickly located two entitled maternal cousins. Acting under a limited power of attorney from one of them, she administered the estate and shared it equally between herself and the two cousins.

The heir hunter assumed that, because RML was born illegitimately with no father’s name on his birth certificate, there could be no equivalent full blood paternal cousins. However, easily accessible Board of Guardian records in the local archives showed that the father’s identity was known, that he had acknowledged paternity, and that he had paid maintenance for his child for the first few years of his life and had even left his son a large bequest in his will.

It transpired that there were 18 paternal cousins who missed out on their inheritance and who are now seeking redress.

Ethical obligation or fiduciary duty?

Elsewhere we have argued that public bodies may have legal duties and certainly have an ethical responsibility to next of kin who end up paying inflated fees as a result of the authority’s choices.

The same rationale must surely apply when incomplete or inaccurate research results in the misidentification of relatives or the wrongful distribution of an estate.

We have also suggested simple solutions to restore competition, reduce finder’s fees and, of course, promote more complete and accurate research through greater transparency. However, in this article, we want to focus on the procedures that local authorities use to select heir hunters.

Liverpool social services referred all intestate deaths to a single heir hunter. In the case of DEB, the heir hunter overlooked 50% of the entitled cousins, who are now seeking redress. She earned £60,000 in finders’ fees from this case.

An astonishing absence of selection procedures

When we sent out detailed Freedom of Information Act requests to the 117 local authorities that we were aware had made use of heir hunters, many councils were unable to confirm that any selection method had been used in deciding which researcher(s) to pass information to.

Although some councils indicated that they had at least checked references, several suggested that they indiscriminately use any researcher that approaches them, while others indicated that they simply use the researcher that was the first to approach them.

For example, one council told us that they “picked a random company off the internet” while a second said that they “will often use a number of genealogists depending on who is available at the time”. A third uses a particular heir hunter “basically as they contact ourselves” and a fourth approached one operator “as they were already known by the case officer”.

Other councils had consulted their procurement division or legal department but had concluded that because there was no exchange of money between the authority and the research company the normal tendering process need not apply.

We asked a total of 43 councils to provide a copy of their death in the community, public health funeral or similar policy or procedure, and 28 were able to do so. Of these, almost all had used genealogical researchers, but their use did not tend to be included in the procedures.

Taken overall, the responses we received to our Freedom of Information requests show an astonishing lack of interest in assessing the qualifications and reputation of heir hunters to whom local authorities routinely pass financially valuable information.

Due diligence

It is our contention that if competition is built into the referral system, either through open advertising or the use of a simultaneous panel, the overall accuracy and completeness of research will increase, and fees paid by relatives will come down. However, it’s clear that over and above this, local authorities need to exercise due diligence if selecting heir hunters or probate research firms.

What ‘due diligence’ constitutes is a matter for each local authority to decide, but it’s reasonable to assume that it would involve paying attention to matters such as insurance, data protection, professional qualifications and accreditations.

One of the most surprising findings of our investigation was that such basic considerations are widely viewed as unimportant.

Useful reading: Myths about the Public Health Act and the duties of local authoritiesWhen you scrap competition, who foots the bill? Handling the affairs of those who die intestate with no known next of kin – a voluntary code of practice for public authorities.