Posted in Fairness Campaigns
Those who have been following our campaign against anti-competitive practices will know that when local authorities provide heir hunters with exclusive knowledge of an intestate estate they increase the likelihood that relatives will pay higher fees and that entitled next of kin will be overlooked. In this article, we look at yet another case that illustrates the problem.
A London borough council passed details of an intestacy that fell within their boundaries to a firm of heir hunters, who then proceeded to identify someone completely unrelated to the deceased as her sole beneficiary.
As a result, the estate was distributed to the wrong person, someone who had no relationship whatsoever with the deceased person. Meanwhile the deceased’s niece and nephew, who have documentary evidence to prove their entitlement, received nothing.
Why did this happen?
It’s pertinent to look at the correspondence associated with this case.
When we contacted the authority on behalf of the entitled relatives, the authority’s representative defended the decision to pass the case to an heir hunter, arguing that: “According to the records we had on her, [the deceased] had no next of kin and we had to conduct a statutory search for a blood relative by advertising through a registered genealogy company” (our emphasis).
If council officers believe they are "advertising" for next of kin "through" an heir hunter, one has to wonder if they are actively being misled.
But even more importantly, the officer's words we highlight above reveal a misunderstanding of the law surrounding public health funerals and intestate deaths.
There is no “statutory” duty on a local authority to locate relatives of a deceased person, if officers have found no evidence of the existence of next of kin from information in their own records or among the possessions of the deceased.
The correct procedure in such a situation is to refer the case to the Bona Vacantia Division (BVD) of the Government Legal Department – or to the Duchies of Cornwall or Lancaster, if the death falls within their jurisdiction.
While it is true that when a relative is known of, but cannot be located, the BVD will not accept the referral, this was not the case here. As the council admits, “According to the records we had on her, [the deceased] had no next of kin”.
Had this case been advertised openly by the BVD, several rival research companies would have worked on it and the correct beneficiaries would have been quickly identified. This is because genealogists working in competition are motivated to double check, challenge and in effect police the work of other researchers. This helps to ensure that unrelated people do not receive wrongful windfalls and that no entitled kin are overlooked.
Who propagates these myths and why?
Those who profit from the myth that local authorities are under an obligation “to conduct a statutory search for a blood relative” are the very same people who propagate the myth – heir hunters seeking to enter into exclusive relationships with public bodies.
The benefits of such an exclusive arrangement should be apparent: when a researcher receives exclusive information about an intestacy, they know that no-one else will be competing with them to offer a more attractive deal in the form of a lower finder’s fee. The unscrupulous will also know that flawed or incomplete research is likely to go unchallenged.
Compounding the error
Having neglected to pass the case to BVD, the local council compounded their error by failing to assess the erroneous kinship claim, and accepting their selected heir hunter’s faulty research.
Again this is something we have argued elsewhere: if a local authority decides to undertake some of the functions otherwise performed by the BVD or Duchies, it must surely be under an obligation to employ staff with the necessary skills to analyse kinship claims.
Meanwhile, despite two serious missteps – passing details of the intestacy to a single heir hunting firm and failing to check the accuracy of their results – the local authority still insists against all evidence that it has “followed due process in handling this issue”.
As the representatives of the entitled beneficiaries, we will be pursuing their claim until they achieve justice - and once this case is closed we will provide an update. As a company, we refuse to cut corners and we are committed to exposing those heir hunters that do.