Maintaining Transparency And Ethical Practice When “Heir Hunting”

According to recent estimates, more than half of adults in the UK don’t have a will and could die intestate. At present, there are more than 8,000 estates on the Bona Vacantia – or ownerless property – list, which is updated daily by the Governments Legal Department (GLD) with new names and details of those who died without a will and with no known next-of-kin.

This puts a huge amount of responsibility on probate genealogists to correctly locate beneficiaries and facilitate the distribution of the deceased’s assets. One mistake could result in years of legal battles for rightful beneficiaries to obtain the inheritance they are due. But despite all this, it is not uncommon to see some firms cut corners to speed up the overall process and boost their finances.

The Heir Hunters TV series sensationalised and popularised the field of probate genealogy, and there has been a small boom in the number of firms and individuals offering the service as a result – often with little to no experience.

The spike in these self-styled “Heir Hunters”, coupled with the lack of statutory regulation in the industry, means that ethical practice is often circumvented, and beneficiaries are not united with what is rightfully owed to them.

So how can these mistakes be avoided to maintain transparency and ethical practice in the “heir hunting” industry?

Treat clients fairly

When probate genealogists know they face little or no competition on a case, it’s not unheard of for them to blatantly overcharge clients for the work they’ve undertaken.

Probate genealogy is not the only industry with this issue. For instance, in June 2018 Keith Smart, an experienced solicitor with over 40 years’ experience, was struck off by the Solicitors

Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) for excessively overcharging clients over a two-year period. The former solicitor admitted eight counts of dishonesty and swindled clients out of £128,000.

However, Smart’s case is not a one-off and stories about how clients have been conned out of money are far from rare. To cut corners, some probate genealogists may only identify one heir to an estate and forego the rest, perhaps because other family relations are harder to identify.

Similarly, even when working on a contingency fee basis, some will try to recoup their research disbursement costs by referring the administration of the estate to favoured solicitors. They will then issue invoices to them, which are readily paid, for the documents they’ve obtained during the course of their investigations.

If probate genealogists are committed to ethical practice, then they must offer a fee that is proportionate to the amount of work that has been undertaken and avoid any manipulative lies.

Get meaningful industry accreditations

Accreditation is used to identify organisations that follow industry regulations. Some companies will claim they’ve won industry awards – or even set up their own awards scheme, which of course they win – but it’s not enough to just pay lip service by subscribing to organisations and societies. Nor is it sufficient to only gain accreditation so you can put the symbol on your website or business card.

We work in a niche industry and many potential clients don’t know which accreditations are real and which can simply be bought on a subscription model. Similarly, they won’t know if the probate genealogist is not following the rules outlined by industry bodies.

Genealogists who do not act with integrity will inevitably damage public confidence and cause harm to the sector. If a firm’s culture doesn’t value honesty and integrity, then both clients and external third parties will be impacted. The time has come to put an end to ruthless and underhand practice in the sector and for industry practitioners to adopt transparent tactics, do the right thing and put customers first.

Philip Turvey, executive director of Anglia Research

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