Have you been contacted by an Heir Hunter?

When Myrtle Godwin received a phone call from someone she did not know, saying she was in line to inherit part of a £320,000 estate, she thought it was a scam.

Godwin overcame her scepticism only when her niece called to say she too had been contacted by Finders International, an “heir hunter” that tracks down the beneficiaries of people who have died without leaving a will or with no known relations.

Godwin, 77, a retired dog breeder who lives in Caversham, Berkshire, with her husband, Peter, 78, a former chemist, said: “I didn’t expect to get a call like that out of the blue. You hear about people being scammed on the phone, so I ignored it at first.”

Godwin is among the fortunate few who benefit each year from estates belonging to people who die intestate — not having made a will — and with no obvious heirs. Property, cash, jewellery and other assets such as cars may be waiting for the right people to claim them.

The number of unclaimed estates has risen. Just under 350 estates were added to the government’s list of bona vacantia — Latin for ownerless goods — in 2010-11. In 2014-15, the number added was 687.

The figures were disclosed after a freedom of information request from Nockolds Solicitors, a Hertfordshire law firm. The list, which is updated frequently, currently contains nearly 15,000 estates.

Peter King, a partner at Nockolds, said: “Families are far more geographically dispersed than they used to be, and often do not have much contact with each other outside weddings and other major family events. If the next of kin resides abroad, and there is no will, tracing them can be extremely difficult.

“The high number of second, and subsequent, marriages means many people change their names more frequently, which can complicate the process of finding heirs.”

If an estate is not claimed by relations or beneficiaries named in a will after 12 years, it automatically goes to the Treasury. A claim is possible for up to 30 years if it is registered on the bona vacantia list.

‘Extract from Sunday Times article published 9/8/15