Does the probate research industry need a watchdog?

If this question had been asked 10 years ago the short answer would have been no. However in recent years there has been an abundance of changes within the probate research industry to suggest there is now a definite need for some form of control.

On 6th April 2009, BBC 2 televised the first episode of “Heir Hunters”. There were 15 programmes in series 1 – following the work of probate research firms as they tracked down heirs to estates, some valuable, others less so.

The programme caught the interest of the British public and series 9 aired in 2015, fuelled by an increased interest in family history research and a range of TV programmes on the general subject to tracing ones roots.

People began asking “How do I become an Heir Hunter?” There was no easy answer, but a solution was forthcoming via the creation of a website and membership programme aptly named the “Heir Hunters Association.”

On payment of a subscription, people could learn how to set up business as a probate researcher. Many did, many failed but many did well with the necessary interest, talent and patience to learn, what was for many, a new craft.

Today, hundreds of people subscribe to the HHA for many reasons, as a part time interest or as a key part of a full time professional business.

The HHA and the BBC Heir Hunters programme have led to the expansion of new industry; mainly concerned with tracing heirs to over 14,000 unclaimed estates of people who died intestate. These are estates being held in trust with the Government Legal Department — generally known as BV (Bona Vacantia).

The probate research industry is divided into several key areas, which show a growing need for some form of control, possibly via legislation or as common with many industries controlled by itself:

1. Established research firms which existed prior to 2009, mainly large firms who had enjoyed a largely competition free, lucrative existence and annoyed at an increasing number of new professional and amateur people taking an increasing share of their business.

2. HHA started to educate its members better via “Master Classes” and a band of experience professionals started to emerge and solve cases of increasing value. Members generally are friendly and co-operative and enjoy the work, largely being done from home on flexible working hours.

3. Some successful researchers left the HHA having learnt their trade and saw no value from continued membership.

4. An increasing number of people tried their hand at probate research never having joined the HHA for advice, one assumes working on the theory “how hard can it be?”. In truth many operate to poor standards.

5. An increasing number of “self-claimers” who rejected professional representation by an “Heir Hunter”, seeing little point in paying a commission based on the value of a successful claim. Some thought a claim meant the money was “all theirs” – oblivious to the fact others may be entitled too, and had to be traced. Others claimed an estate only to discover another had a prior and better claim on the estate and they were left with nothing.

In recent years, the HHA has been the focal point for questions and complaints about research firms big and small from members of the public. Clearly some members were well known and respected by the HHA, others unknown, or were the subject of previous concerns and complaints.

Realising the need for greater impartiality, in 2011 the HHA sponsored the development of the independent non-profit organisation now known as the Federation of Probate and Asset Researchers (FPAR) which has slowly grown to represent an increasing number of quality probate researchers who meet a set standard and have agreed to follow established protocols.

FPAR has been heavily criticised by competitive firms over its use of the term “watchdog” and the fact it has no legal powers, only influence. Its board of directors give their time voluntarily and meet weekly to deal with a varied agenda of topics. It exists to mediate disputes between research firms, a research firm and a client heir, or visa-versa and warn the public of miscreants in the industry who act unprofessionally or indeed fraudulently.

So ask that original question again today: “Does the probate research industry need a watchdog?”. The answer has to be yes. To continue to argue against such a need is biased and based on the fear that an organisation like FPAR is eroding one’s own business. Competition is GOOD for the consumer, the heir to an estate of unknown value; it opens up doors into forgotten or unknown family history, and maybe a small sum of money as a bonus. To a few, a life changing fortune.

Whether organisations such as the HHA and/or FPAR can or should properly call themselves a “watchdog” for the probate industry is subjective. Few people can object to a name or title for the role, the key is the work it does and the effectiveness of it in the industry, both for the public at large and those directly involved in the industry, whether seasoned professionals or ethical newcomers who are members of a recognised support organisation.

The Oxford Dictionary clarifies the term “Watchdog” adequately “A person or group that monitors the practices of companies providing a particular service or utility.“.

Maurice Clarke is a co-founder of the Federation of Probate and Asset Researchers Ltd (FPAR) a non-profit company limited by guarantee established to be a focal point for heirs and probate researchers who have concerns over the quality and professional standards of the industry in dealing with estates, with a special emphasis on intestate estates.

This article was submitted to be published by the Heir Hunters Association (HHA) as part of their advertising agreement with Today’s Wills & Probate. The views expressed in this article are those of the submitter and not those of Today’s Wills & Probate.

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