Probate fraudsters have been cold calling people to tell them they are due an inheritance from a long lost relative’s estate – then charging thousands in fees and inflated expenses.
The rogue companies are cashing in on the popularity of the BBC One TV show ‘Heir Hunters’ which follows genuine probate researchers in tracking down those entitled to money.
The call will typically start with the probate company telling the victim that they are related to someone who has died intestate (without a Will). They then offer to act to secure the inheritance, but end up charging the victim for huge commissions and fake expenses.
A partner of a genuine probate research company that appears on the TV show has said the industry is “awash with rogues” and badly in need of reform. Neil Fraser of the company Fraser & Fraser admits that the industry is highly lucrative – but explains that this has attracted fraudsters looking to make a quick buck. Mr Fraser has launched the Association of Probate Researchers – a self regulating organisation that aims to put the much-needed rules in place.
You could be heir to a fortune
Despite the industry being rife with fraud, it is entirely possible that you could be heir to the fortune of a long lost relative. The Government’s ‘Bona Vacantia’ list (meaning ‘ownerless property’) holds details of nearly 12,000 estates where people have died without a Will and without any known close relatives. This list is updated daily and is publically available – allowing anyone to use it to find a long lost relative.
Mr Fraser’s company say they have helped with more than 20,000 cases, tracing over 100,000 beneficiaries and securing payments of £200,000,000.
Not everyone is entitled to inherit, however. There is a list which dictates how the estate should be distributed, once heirs are found. The person’s husband, wife or civil partner are entitled first; then their children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and so on. The people lower down the list – descendants of first cousins, for example – will only be entitled to inherit if there is no one above them.
How to claim your fortune
Claiming your fortune starts with searching the list for family members you have lost contact with. You may wish to research your family tree. This is an interesting and worthwhile activity that can reveal a lot about your family’s background, even if it transpires that you have no relatives with estates to pass on.
Using a company
If you find out that you are an heir to someone on the Bona Vacantia list, you can make a claim yourself. If you make the claim within 12 years of your relative’s death, the Government will pay you interest on the amount you’re entitled to. They also have the discretion to extend this deadline to 30 years, but they will not pay interest if the claim is made between 12 and 30 years of the death.
Some companies, such as Fraser & Fraser, actively seek heirs and when one is found, they offer to do the work in making the claim – for a fee. An acceptable fee within the industry is 25% of the amount you inherit. Watch out for unscrupulous companies who will charge you significantly more. It is also wise to agree any expenses up front so that you are not landed with a surprise bill down the line.