BBC 'Bounty Hunters' Row; Anger at Show That Lets Firms Track Down Relatives to Cash in on Unclaimed Wills

Daily Mail (London), February 4, 2010 | Go to article overview

BBC 'Bounty Hunters' Row; Anger at Show That Lets Firms Track Down Relatives to Cash in on Unclaimed Wills


Byline: Ben Todd and Colin Fernandez

IT is the surprise hit of the BBC's daytime schedule.

Heir Hunters follows a series of probate firms racing against time to try to trace the distant relatives of those who have died without leaving a will - and secure their finder's fee.

But the corporation was criticised last night after it emerged many of the firms are charging relatives up to 40 per cent commission just to tell them about their inheritance 'windfalls'.

This is despite the fact that, with a little research, you can claim for any inheritance free via a Government website. Conservative MP Philip Davies said: 'A public service organiser should make it clear the level of fees that these organisations are capable of charging.

'They should also signpost the official sources where the public could get this information for free and before they are taken in by these kind of companies.' Heir Hunters, which airs on BBC1 five mornings a week and attracts around 1.7million viewers, details how solicitors' firms use genealogists to research unclaimed, intestate estates.

These are advertised by the Treasury Solicitor in local newspapers and on a list - published every Thursday on its website - known as Bona Vacantia - Latin for 'ownerless goods'.

Although the list includes basic information about the deceased - including their full name, the place where they died and when - it does not include the value of their estate or any other personal details.

Probate firms choose which estates to research, before piecing together the deceased's family tree and tracking down any relatives they believe may have a claim.

The researchers then announce any potential windfall to the surprised recipient. They promise to put in a claim for the relative and in return secure themselves as much as a third of any future payout.

However, as the industry is unregulated, there is no one to turn to if a person believes they have been overcharged by a probate firm.

Fraser & Fraser, one of several of the firms to appear on Heir Hunters, admitted that it charges up to 40 per cent on windfalls. However, most fees were 15 per cent, it added.

Partner Charles Fraser said: 'People don't have to take up our services. It's surprising people think we do this for free.' However, some heir hunter firms accept that the industry, at times, charges too much.

Title Research charge flat fees, which on an estate worth [pounds sterling]80,000 would be around [pounds sterling]1,500. However, for other firms, a cut of 10 per cent would bring in [pounds sterling]8,000 while a 40 per cent fee would result in a [pounds sterling]32,000 payout.

Tom Curran, of Title Research, said: 'Many people will be contacted by an heir hunter out of the blue and told that someone has died and they stand to inherit some money. …

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