Next of kin of individuals who are deemed to be in the final stages of life, are at risk of signing away a large proportion of their inheritance due to the actions of unscrupulous genealogists – who do not disclose the fact that their dying relatives are still living!
Certain heir hunters, and their counterparts, are resorting to this tactic as a means of:
- Allowing them to secure an exclusive contract, charge larger fees and eliminate other competing genealogists from the process.
- Enabling the statutory 14-day cancellation right available to beneficiaries to pass before legitimate firms of heir hunters can contact the family, offering more competitive rates, which would normally only happen after the death of their relative.
Rather than telling the beneficiaries up front that their relative is not yet deceased, the unsuspecting heirs may be led to believe that the relative has passed away.
Under usual circumstances, heir hunters will only work on an estate where the individual is deceased, whereupon a number of companies offering heirship services may approach the beneficiaries offering their assistance.
Danny Curran, founder and chairman of the IAPPR  (The International Association of Professional Probate Researchers, Genealogists & Heir Hunters), commented:
“Established and ethical heir location firms, in both the UK and the USA, have denounced this process. They know better than to deviate from usual practices in this way, yet we are seeing a rise in such cases resulting in next of kin being deeply unhappy and upset when they discover the truth. Our advice to individuals being contacted by heir hunters about relatives abroad is to read every word very carefully before signing anything. Take advice from an independent solicitor or refer to the IAPPR, as a regulator, for free information and guidance.”
The case which has brought these underhand tactics to light is the $2million estate of Gillian Neufeld of Los Angeles, California whose next of kin reside in the UK. The heir hunting firm in question was looking to secure the sizeable 30 per cent fee ahead of death. When contacted by another firm after the death of Mrs Neufeld the family were shocked to learn that she was actually still alive when they had signed up! Furthermore, the 30 per cent fee, amounting to around £600,000 in this instance, is well above the usual rate charged by heir hunters in the UK.
Samuel Hardy, legal executive at Blake Morgan LLP , solicitors, commented: “Under no circumstances should a person’s estate be offered to family members as unclaimed goods before that person has even passed away. In the UK, someone appointed by a court to look after the financial affairs of another (a ‘Deputy’) has a strict fiduciary duty to act in that person’s best interests and in a way that is confidential to them at all times.”
‘Conservatorship’ does not exist as a legal condition in the UK under this name, but the IAPPR notes that some firms may not even mention the word ‘conservatorship’ until after heirs have signed the onerous contracts. The closest reference in the UK is the Appointment of a ‘Deputy’ or ‘Appointee’ – and these cases are often dealt with by the Court of Protection.
Helen Clarke, partner of Pitmans LLP  solicitors, said: “Conservatorship does not apply as a legal concept in the UK and the entitlement of a beneficiary under a deceased’s intestacy does not come into effect until the death of the intestate. The practice of the heir hunters in the Neufeld case therefore highlights the need to proceed with caution when approached by an heir hunter in particular with regard to any contract that is being signed. We would always advise that care is taken and legal advice should be sought if there is any uncertainty so that the position in law of the individual concerned is properly understood.”
Further reading on Californian Conservatorship can be found here.