Every year, thousands of people die intestate, meaning they haven’t made a will or one cannot be found. In cases where no beneficiaries can be traced within 12 years, the estate passes to the Crown (HM Treasury). In certain cases, claims may be submitted up to 30 years after a death at the discretion of the Treasury Solicitor.

Bona vacantia (Latin for ‘vacant goods’) is the name given to ownerless property (homes, money, possessions and so forth) and every day names are added to the Bona Vacantia list, which is where the Crown’s Treasury Solicitor advertises for kin of deceased intestates in England and Wales to come forward and claim what could be rightfully theirs.

The current list dates from 1997, so this is where you can look to see if you can spot anyone that may be a long-lost relative. And possibly be in line for a claim on their estate.

However, it’s not quite as easy as that. The list – which deals with around 2,000 solvent cases per year – simply provides a forename, surname, place of death and marital status. Sometimes spouse’s names are given (if known), as are alias names and place of birth. It’s up to potential claimants on the estate to prove their relationship with the deceased. Oh, and before you get excited, there’s no clue as to how much the estate is worth, although none less than £500 are advertised.

The key message is, though, if you are in line for a surprise windfall, you could be contacted by an heir hunter.

Behind the camera

Bona vacantia has been in existence since William the Conqueror’s time, but it wasn’t until June 2007 that the general public really became aware of it thanks to the popular BBC TV programme, ‘Heir Hunters’.

Starting its eighth series on BBC1 in early 2014, the programmes follow the exciting warts-and-all progress of probate researchers attempting to find rightful heirs to intestates, before the unclaimed estates are collected by the Treasury.

But how was the idea of ‘Heir Hunters’ conceived? John Widdup, executive producer at Flame TV, the production company behind the programmes, reveals all…

‘We thought the world of probate genealogy made an intriguing proposition for a television series. There was the detective work of tracing missing relatives, the drama of racing against time to visit heirs and the joy of telling people about an unexpected inheritance.

‘It was also clear that the work of the “heir hunters” would provide a unique platform from which to explore a diverse range of social history and tell some fascinating and very moving family stories. After positive discussions with some major probate research firms the series was pitched to the BBC in 2005, and the rest is history.

‘The phrase “heir hunters” is now widely used to describe those in the industry – although many still prefer the term probate researcher or forensic genealogist.’

Caroline: Where do you start when making the programmes?

John: ‘We work with several major probate research firms and once we go into production we begin discussing potential stories for the series. Some may be cases they are currently investigating, while others will be cases from the archives that have already been solved.

‘A series of 20 episodes takes around six months to produce and is generally broadcast within a few months of completion.

‘We have a core production team of around 20 people, including a series producer and production manager, researchers, editors and edit producers who write the narration. Our producer/directors are also skilled camera operators and they shoot the programme themselves using small, high-definition cameras. By keeping the kit and crew to a minimum we’re able to be as unobtrusive as possible, which is especially important when shooting in a busy working environment.’

Caroline: Who looks for heirs and why?

John: ‘Probate research companies specialise in tracing missing beneficiaries to estates of people who have died intestate and who had no known relatives. Many of these cases are advertised by the Bona Vacantia division of the Treasury Solicitor’s office and heir hunting firms will try to trace living relatives who are entitled to a share of the estate and help them claim their inheritance.

‘Most firms work on commission and agree a fee with each heir they find, which is usually a percentage of the inheritance. But because estate values range from a few hundred pounds to hundreds of thousands of pounds, and because the heir hunters often don’t know the true value of an estate, their work can be a huge gamble. They might put hours of costly research into tracing scores of family members only to learn that the case is worth very little and their percentage fee won’t cover the cost of their work. ‘There is also a huge amount of work that goes on once heirs have been found, and it is often months – or even years – before an estate can be fully distributed.

‘Other sources of work for the heir hunters can include solicitors who may find that they are in contact with some but not all of the relatives to an estate, or neighbours of a property that is falling into disrepair because the owner has passed away and there is no one to inherit it.’

Caroline: How do you source and choose subjects for the programme?

John: ‘Broadly speaking we feature two types of cases: ones in which we follow the heir hunters “live” as they trace family members, and then others which are interesting cases from the archives that have already been solved.

‘For us to include any case in the programme we look for an heir who is happy to be featured and we also strive to find people who knew the deceased and can share some positive memories of them.

‘We then spend time researching the family and/or social history angle for each story, which could be anything from the interesting occupation of an ancestor to a key event that shaped a family’s story, such as WWII evacuation for example.’

Caroline: How long does it take to trace heirs and what happens if they don’t want to be featured on telly?

John: ‘Depending on the complexity of the case, tracing heirs can be done in a matter of hours thanks to the internet.

‘No one is featured, or even named, in the programme without their consent, and we respect the fact that not everyone wants to be on camera. This means some cases hit the cutting room floor because no heirs wish to be involved, but people are generally open to the idea of taking part in the programme and many are already fans of the series.

‘Any contact from heir hunters is likely to have come as a surprise and I think people usually experience a range of emotions. Most are quite excited to be told they might be in line to inherit some money. But this excitement is always tempered by the news that a relative has died – even if it is a relative they didn’t know they had.

‘In extreme cases where close relatives have become estranged, heir hunters can actually find themselves having to break the news that someone’s sibling, parent or even child has passed away. It’s an extremely difficult part of their job.

‘For many heirs, the news that they’ve been left a legacy by a long-lost relative is the start of a journey that will lead them to discover more about their own family history or the person that has died. We often follow heirs as they go on this journey and it has led to some of the most moving and memorable moments in the series.’

Caroline: Have there been best and worst case study outcomes?

John: ‘Yes, more best than worst. A common and very positive outcome is for families to either reunite or meet each other as a result of being contacted by the heir hunters. A story in the latest series sees two brothers who were both brought up in care meet for the very first time, which is extremely moving.

‘A very sad story, which emphasised the importance of making a valid will, was that of a Hampshire man in 2009. Before he died he had asked his accountant to draw up a will leaving his entire £300,000 estate to his brother-in-law and family to whom he was very close. Sadly it seems the will wasn’t drawn up correctly and was deemed invalid.

‘As his brother-in-law was not a blood relative, neither he nor his family could inherit. The heir hunters were able to find family members who were entitled to the estate, but the people named in the will were left with nothing.’

Daniel Curran, managing director of Finders, explains: ‘Every case is different, although patterns in research develop over the years. To start any case we need to gather all relevant information from wherever we can. This could be making enquiries of the neighbours – Finders has representatives all over the UK that can do this in person if the whole street is ex-directory – or simply ensuring we have properly consulted with our client or the person referring the case to us.

‘Attention to detail at the early stages is paramount as this can save you a great deal of time and effort. In one case we were told that the deceased had a slight Eastern European accent, despite having a generic English name, and this led us to enquiries in Poland. Family tree work is standard is many cases, but we have to remain aware of intestacy rules so as to be sure we have identified the correct heirs.

‘The best solutions are often to find an expert in the relevant county who can assist. We visit the British Library and other main resources in London, which is why you will find that the [main firms on the TV show] heir hunters are based in the capital.’

The internet is a major resource but Daniel warns: ‘You have to be aware of variations and errors in spelling. There is only so much the internet can help us with and we still go back to original records time and time again to check our facts.

‘Solicitors, if mentioned, may be a point of contact, but if a document mentioning a firm that could provide clues is over seven years old then there is a fair chance the solicitors will have destroyed their records.

‘Once we have identified who we are looking for – remember we often start from nothing more than a name and date of death – we then switch to one or more of the numerous databases and software programs we have bought or subscribe to’. There are cheap and free alternatives, but they may not provide the complete coverage up to the present date, for instance.

If you are a potential beneficiary of an intestate, then the first you’ll probably know about it is when a probate researcher gets in touch, either by phone or in person; beware of anyone that contacts you via unsolicited email. Bona Vacantia itself never sends out unsolicited emails.

To satisfy yourself you are not being ‘scammed’, check out the researcher’s credentials and ensure they have a Missing Beneficiary Indemnity insurance policy. Useful guidelines can be found on The Society of Genealogists’ website at tinyurl.com/pdvmn3f.

Steer clear of anyone asking you to pay a fee up front for bona vacantia claims. Genuine firms collect their agreed percentage fee once probate has legally been settled.


N.B. This is an abridged version of the full article

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