The business of tracing missing heirs and beneficiaries

The business of finding beneficiaries to unclaimed estates, can be a complicated and drawn out process. Factors such as the global population increasing at breakneck speed, divorce rising - resulting in name changing complications and increasing proportions of any given society relocating globally, are all contributory to the complexity and challenges faced by the probate industry.

So what is Probate? Probate is simply the process of dealing with a person’s possessions, money and conducting their final wishes after they pass away. If the deceased had made a Will with a named executer(s), then the process of administering their Will should be straight forward. However, complications arise when the deceased has passed away without making a Will, thus leaving themselves as what is termed ‘intestate’.

In the UK alone, it has been reported that up to nearly two thirds of the adult population have not prepared a Will, consequentially leaving their possessions, money and even dependent children, being left with someone they haven’t chosen*. A recent survey of over 2000 participants, conducted by Macmillan Cancer Support, revealed among the over-55s, 42 per cent do not have a Will.

We know that the UK has billions in unclaimed financial assets, whilst figures from the Office for National Statistics indicate that there are on average 500,000 deaths each year in the UK alone. Deceased financial estates conceal a modest share of the nation’s unclaimed cash and this poses a problem during probate. This is where the business of tracing missing heirs and beneficiaries, to ensure these assets are passed onto the rightful recipients comes in.

Fraser and Fraser are a firm of Genealogy and International Probate Researchers, founded originally in 1923 to help support lawyers in their genealogical research of tracing missing beneficiaries. By employing our expertise, contacts and knowledge, we trace the rightful people who are entitled to a share of an estate. If they are names in a Will but cannot be found, we investigate in order to discover their whereabouts. When there is no Will and that person has passed away intestate, we delve into their family history to enable their next-of-kin to be found.

How does it all work? Probate research revolves around genealogy and the process of finding different family relations, in order to prove their right for our client’s inheritance. By starting with the present and working backwards in someone’s family history, we are able to build a robust family tree based on historical records to prove relationships and subsequently identify next-of-kin(s). We combine our years of experience and expertise with a methodical approach, looking where many others don’t, conducting not only the usual electronic searches, but also the pain-staking manual searches that cannot be automated.

Most of the financial asset searchers offered by other firms will be to simply check on Experian’s ‘Unclaimed Asset Register’ or conduct a search using Landmarks FAS service. Our service is far more thorough and detailed. We aim to uncover unknown financial assets within Great Britain by activating searches of financial institutions’ records relating to bank accounts, building society accounts, pensions, life policies, some shareholdings and other financial investments, conducting credit checks, looking for Directorships through Companies House, searching occupational pension schemes through the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and, where possible (if the Grant has been issued) Title details through the Land Registry.

Who is entitled to an intestate estate? The administration of Estates Act (1925) determines that the order of entitlement is as follows:

1. Spouse or civil partner
2. Children (or issue of a child who had died before the deceased)
3. Parents
4. Brothers and sisters of the whole blood (with the same parent), or their issues if their brother or sister died before the deceased
5. Brothers and sisters of the half-blood (one common parent), or their children if the brother or sister died before the deceased
6. Grandparents
7. Uncles and aunts of the whole blood, or their issue if the uncle or aunty died before the deceased, leaving issue (cousins)
8. Uncles and aunts of the half blood, or their issue (half-blood cousins)
9. The Crown or Duchy of Lancaster or Cornwall

In addition to establishing who is entitled, it is vital to investigate what the actual value of the estate is. HMRC state that as part of applying for probate, you need to value the money, property and possessions (‘estate’) of the person who died. This involves contacting organisations such as banks and utility providers, estimating the value of the estate and reporting this value to HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). This end-to-end process can take six to nine months, or even longer for larger and more complicated estates. Whilst it is advisable to start the process as soon as possible, there is no legally stipulated timeframes for having to value someone’s estate after they pass away. There are only deadlines if the estate owes Inheritance Tax.**

Even though the business of finding beneficiaries to unclaimed estates is nothing new, the challenges that face our industry are! As the research we meticulously conduct has been documented and gained prominence, thanks largely to the success of the BBC1 TV programme Heir Hunters, there has been a stark realisation that the industry lacked regulation. Several one-man band firms set up companies, and even associations of their own, often with little or no legal training, effectively learning on the job and relying on the TV programme for their education.

In a bid to address this, Neil Fraser, Partner at Fraser and Fraser recognised the need for professional firms in the industry to come together with one voice to raise standards and offer reassurance and protection to beneficiaries legally due to inherit from the Estate of a family member, loved one or friend. It is from this sole objective that the Association of Probate Researchers (APR) was born.

APR’s main aim is to put a stop to this, as we believe that conducting research with insignificant legal knowledge has no place when dealing with highly sensitive matters such as the distribution of an individual’s Estate. APR members are committed to the safe and ethical delivery of legal services, which probate research falls under. APR was born to safeguard the public from falling prey to these hobby genealogists and rogues. Both Corporate and individual APR members sign up to the APRs Professional Standards & Ethics Code, and as a result, APR is recognised body of the Professional Paralegal Register (PPR). We therefore urge the public to air on the side of caution when contacted by anyone claiming to be an ‘heir hunter’ and check they are an APR member prior to entering into any discussions with them. The full membership directory can be found on the APR website.

Many new firms have ascended due to publicity of the business of tracing missing heirs and beneficiaries. However, as a long-established firm with a highly renowned reputation, Fraser and Fraser continue to provide an exemplary level of service for all clients. This is substantiated by having over 40 years’ experience in this industry, which comes with over 3 generation’s wealth of knowledge and hardship. We have built trusted partnerships, both with legal firms who recommend and use our services and the Public Sector who we work very closely with too. Our aim is to continue to pave the way to ensure that our industry always remains one of integrity and professionalism. For more information on our services or how Fraser and Fraser can help you, get in touch today on or call 020 7832 1400 quoting EWJ1018.

*Independent online 09.01.18
** HMRC online



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