I’ve some bad news . . . and some good news
If you thought money was emotive, try adding family to the mix. Daniel Curran, who is employed by solicitors to track down relatives due inheritances, says that you never quite know how beneficiaries are going to react.
In one case, he had to tell a woman that her estranged sister had passed away, a task that he, naturally, hadn’t looked forward to. “She just said: ‘Can you tell me where the grave is, so I can go and dance on it?’,” he says.
Welcome to the world of probate genealogy. Mr Curran is founder of Finders, which as seen on BBC TV’s Heir Hunters, employs investigators to unearth long-lost relatives to give them the news.
“Most of my investigators are retired police, so they’re used to delivering news of deaths in tragic circumstances,” says Mr Curran, who started the business in 1997. “Here it’s still sad, but at least there’s a moment when you say: ‘But there may be some money coming your way’.”
Not that the news is always welcome. Mr Curran recently had to inform a man that his father had died. He hadn’t seen his father for 50 years, but was sole heir to £250,000, a windfall that meant he no longer qualified for the council property he’d called home for half a century.
His jobs could involve estates worth as much as £2 million, but people who have stashed that much away don’t tend to leave loose ends. The average is between £50,000 and £300,000. Yet it is all relative. “Even if you’re reuniting someone with £5,000 it could write off their credit card debt and still change their life,” he says.
Mr Curran left school at 16 and worked as a barman at the Hammersmith Palais before finding his way into the probate world in 1990. Seven years later, having fallen out with his employer, he decided to set up himself, using credit cards to fund the business. “It was really hard for quite a few years,” he says.
In the pre-internet days, he had to trawl through records offices, looking up entries in huge bound volumes that listed all births, marriages and deaths from 1837 to the present day.
“They had a big leather handle and you’d pull them off the shelves and crash them on to the desk,” he says. “It took a couple of hours to do what you can now do in ten minutes.”
Mr Curran and his 30-strong team work from a large open-plan office in London’s East End. They welcomed the digital revolution, but not without reservations: new outfits have been encouraged to have a crack at the work, which remains unregulated.
Disreputable companies sometimes do all the investigating, only to pocket the inheritance themselves, he says.
Not that there’s any love lost between the legitimate players either. Mr Curran says he spends a fortune on lawyers to bat away a constant flood of accusations from rivals.
“It’s ridiculous,” he says. “We beat one of our competitors to a case with a guy who lived in a tower block in Shepherd’s Bush. The next day that competitor went out of his way to accuse me of signing up a client who was probably drunk and so not capable of signing anything. Of course, I’d just spent four hours with him, and he hadn’t drunk a thing.”
Finders often works pro bono to help local councils, who are obliged to handle funerals for anyone who passes away with no known relatives.
Mr Curran cites the example of Anne Naysmith, an acclaimed concert pianist who’d lived rough for 40 years. Hounslow council asked him to find any next of kin so that at least someone would be at her funeral.
Thanks to Finders’ digging, 150 people turned up. “Contrary to what people may think, we’re not ambulance-chasing. We do have a conscience,” Mr Curran says.