The number of unclaimed estates has risen by 157pc in five years, resulting in millions of pounds in “orphan” bequests. If no legitimate heirs can be found, the money ends up with the Government.

Among those whose assets narrowly escaped this fate was Pamela Rowland, who died on Christmas Eve 2014 at the age of 82.

It took almost two years for her friend Christine Hooson to be notified that she was to inherit Mrs Rowland’s entire estate.

Mrs Rowland had no immediate family but had been friends with Christine and her husband, Malcolm, since the Nineties, when Mr Hooson became Mrs Rowland’s regular taxi driver.

The couple used to visit Mrs Rowland regularly and invited her over for Christmas dinner. Mrs Hooson, 69, was aware of Mrs Rowland’s death and had attended the funeral.

In the summer of this year, Mrs Hooson, whose husband died in 2015, was contacted by a firm of “heir hunters”, Finders International, which had been trying to track her down.

Local solicitors had enlisted the heir hunters as they believed there might be a will in Mrs Rowland’s property. It turned out that there was.

Mrs Hooson inherited Mrs Rowland’s bungalow and put it up for sale by auction. The reserve price was £110,000 and she is waiting to hear how much it fetched.

Mrs Hooson said she never expected to be the beneficiary of her friend’s estate.

She said: “Malcolm and I had suggested that she arrange a will a number of times. Her mother died without one and it caused complications.

“She usually dismissed the conversation but she seemed to have taken it on board, even if it did take a while to be found.”

Where to look for lost inheritances

There are currently more than 11,400 unclaimed estates held on the Treasury Solicitor’s list, some dating back to 1987. The list is updated daily.

However, valid wills exist for one in five of the cases advertised as intestacies, according to Daniel Curran of Finders International.

Following changes to government procedures in 2014 relatives are sometimes tracked down only for it to emerge that they will inherit nothing, Mr Curran said.

They find that they have been disinherited or that the “entire estate has been left to a cats’ home”.

The “unclaimed estates list” is on the Government website.

In 2011 there were 293 unclaimed estates, compared with 753 in 2015, according to a Freedom of Information request to the Government.

An increase in dispersed families and the high number of multiple marriages resulting in numerous name changes have made it more difficult to trace heirs when no will is found, suggested Peter King, head of wills and probate at Nockolds, the law firm.

Last year £23.9m was released from unclaimed estates – £14.8m was paid to kin who made claims. This means that £9.1m was left unaccounted for. If left unclaimed the Treasury eventually inherits the cash.

What happens to unclaimed estates?

When someone dies and a will or family cannot be found, the estate is known as “bona vacantia”, which means ownerless, and is passed to the Crown.

Sarah Phillips, a partner at Irwin Mitchell, the law firm, said the Crown was likely to sell assets such as property “quite quickly”.

There is a pecking order of who can claim:

  • Husband, wife or civil partner
  • Children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and so on
  • Mother or father
  • Brothers or sisters or their children
  • Half brothers or sisters or their children
  • Grandparents
  • Uncles and aunts or their children
  • Half uncles and aunts or their children

Claims are accepted 12 years from the date on which the administration of the estate is completed and interest will be paid on the money held.

The Government will also accept claims 30 years from the date of death but no interest will be offered. If no one comes forward, it keeps the money.

Ms Phillips said “heir hunters” or genealogists did have a role to play when tracing a will or unknown kin as they had the resources.

However, these are private companies with commercial motivations. For example, Finders International charges a commission of 5pc-25pc of the final net sum of the inheritance depending on the circumstances and sums involved.

This means that individuals in line for a £150,000 inheritance would have to pay up to £22,500.

Those who choose to claim on an estate via the government website will pay a fee for the administration, which varies depending on the work involved. No commission is taken on top of this.

A government spokesman suggested that it would cost £100 plus VAT to administer an estate with one asset in a bank account and one liability, such as a mortgage or outstanding bill.

However, a multi-million pound estate with many assets and liabilities would involve more cost.

Original source: Telegraph/Money/ConsumerAffairs