Heir hunters are warning that millions of pounds worth of inheritance could end up in the wrong hands because of a surge in the number of estates registered incorrectly as intestate.

There are 10,585 estates listed as unclaimed by the Bona Vacantia (latin for vacant goods) division of the government’s legal department, but heir hunters say that in about a fifth of cases the deceased person has left a will. Reductions in the number of will searches carried out by the government means that the total of supposedly unclaimed estates is growing by 50 a week, according to the International Association of Professional Probate Researchers, Genealogists and Heir Hunters (IAPPR).

In the past three months members of the association have been asked to search for a will in a record number of cases. They have looked into estates worth a total of more than £15 million because potential beneficiaries believed that the wills of their relatives had gone undiscovered.

Heir hunters never had to search for wills before trying to trace family members over unclaimed estates. Government officials did it, advertising the estate as intestate on the Bona Vacantia website.

Now, heir hunters say that they are tracing next of kin, raising their hopes of an inheritance, only to have them dashed when a will is later discovered — often in the deceased’s home.

Daniel Curran, IAPPR spokesman and founder of Finders International, who appears on the BBC’s Heir Hunters, says: “Valid wills do exist for, on average, one in every five cases advertised as intestate. Government withdrawal from funding a will search could inevitably lead to estates passing to the wrong people.”

Story was originally covered in THE TIMES