Ensuring fairness and legality in the administration of an Estate is something that all legal representatives are aware of. Therefore, it is important to be clear on all legal options available, not least when asking for the assistance of probate genealogists in order to find missing or unknown beneficiaries. Heir hunters fees as proposed by a reputable firm should, in Finders experience, never cause the client or beneficiary any headaches or problems, but, as with any service selection process, there are points to consider and not all firms have the same standards.

The most popular and well established heir hunters fee option is the contingency fee as it offers no legal obstacles or difficulties to the probate practitioner. In this way a fee can be agreed directly with each beneficiary that is traced. This fee, expressed as a percentage to ensure fairness, is deducted from the net entitlement of each heir Finders identify and locate, but only when the estate is distributed.

The person or firm referring the case has no liability over the fees paid to Finders, but, critically, can control costs by setting the percentage limit in advance.

Furthermore, the heirs themselves are told of the approximate net sum it is hoped that they will receive. They can then see exactly how much the contingency fee is proposed to be. As a further reassurance they may then re-negotiate the fee payable to Finders until they feel it is fair. Finders even offer free independent legal advice via their website to those seeking extra peace of mind.

This provides three levels of agreement and scrutiny of our fee when working on a contingency fee basis. In this way the referring solicitor, Finders and the beneficiaries can all agree that the fee is fair.

The contingency fee option is available to lawyers, even when only modest estate and inheritance values are at stake, or when the value of the inheritance is unknown at the point of contacting heirs. In the latter case, a percentage based system ensures that the fee will always be proportional and, should it transpire that an estate is insolvent, the beneficiary will not owe anything.

The contingency fee is the only legal option available when presented with a Bona Vacantia Estate (no known next of kin) as, where there is no Grant of Letters of Administration there is no legal authority to pay fees from the Estate or to agree to pay a deferred fee to any third party at a later date. Hence heir hunters fees are usually of this kind.

However, the contingency fee option is possible with or without a Grant. Where a Grant exists and whenever possible, Finders offer four fee options in order to present the client with a choice to suit the individual circumstances of the case in hand.

Increasingly we are asked for our contingency fee option as expert experience, legal opinions and QC advice is that this is the safest, least contentious route for the probate practitioner.

When working on a contingency fee basis, Finders guarantee to complete all necessary work at no extra charge. Our commission fee has to cover our risk and all expenses. This means that a firm guarantee exists to find all missing or unknown beneficiaries and provide a full report regardless of the outcome, even if completely negative and no heirs are traced, at no charge to the general Estate or the solicitor referring the case to Finders.

The contingency fee also offers positive incentives for the genealogist in that they cannot be paid until the estate is finally distributed. Therefore, there is a need to find the missing heirs in order to secure a contingency fee and research will often be more determined as a result. When a fee is to be paid by the general estate a less scrupulous firm may stop short of providing final results in the hope of securing further fees. In point of fact the motivation may be to take as long as possible over the research! Finders have had many disappointed lawyers contacting them having been charged excessive fees for little or no tangible result on a budget or fixed fee basis by other firms.

Where one or more beneficiaries are already known to the Administrator, the heir hunters fees can also be on a contingency fee basis. The known heirs will not be subsidizing research by agreeing to fees being paid by the general estate (and thus reducing their inheritance) and they will not profit from research being carried out on a contingency fee basis as their entitlement(s) remain the same after the contingency fee research is completed.

With all Finders reassurances and checks in place to ensure a professional and successful outcome, the contingency fee, as offered by Finders, is the preferred option of the vast majority of solicitors across the UK.

Finally, the proof of the success of the contingency fee must ultimately be in the experience of its use. Daniel Curran, MD of Finders, has not encountered any legal or other difficulties in this method of charging over the last twenty years. He comments “Heir hunters fee options are varied, but at Finders we have worked on a contingency fee basis for the last 11 years without any difficulties at all. Our client and beneficiary survey feedback tells us that 100% of our case work has been received positively, something which we are not complacent about and are anxious to maintain.”

The “Deferred Fee”

The “Deferred fee” is not something that Finders offers as it raises serious legality issues.

This is where a probate genealogist makes a deal in advance of locating any heirs with the person or firm referring an estate to them, usually where no Grant exists. Solicitors are informed that, when they accept an offer to defer a fee, no success will mean that no fee is payable. ‘Success’, however, appears to be defined as finding one heir entitled to share in the Estate who can be referred back to the person or firm who passed the case on to the genealogist in the first instance. A Grant can then be extracted and the pre-arranged “deferred fee” paid, plus it seems, further fees to locate all other heirs or otherwise complete all necessary research to enable safe distribution of the estate. The final bill could be astronomical!

This could lead the instructing person or firm into legal difficulties. Without a Grant there is no authority with which to make such an arrangement and the heirs, once found, will have had no say whatsoever in the size of the fee. They may well find their inheritance excessively depleted by it, and rightly feel upset about this secret ‘deal’. Once instructed, the referring firm may then be obliged to incur further, often extortionate fees to the genealogists in order to complete the work required to ensure safe distribution of the Estate.

A recent marketing campaign by an heir hunting firm promoting “deferred fees” and not offering a contingency fee alternative, was backed up by advertising in the Legal Press. The Advertising Standards Authority felt this advertising was misleading on a number of points and our competitor was compelled to change its advertisement or face a formal investigation. Unsurprisingly, they immediately withdrew their advertising!


Bona Vacantia

Many of the Bona Vacantia Estates featured on the Heir Hunters TV show are referred to the Treasury Solicitor by solicitors who encounter an estate with no known next of kin. These apparently Bona Vacantia estates often have next of kin who could legally inherit, but who may have lost contact with the Deceased or never known of their existence. Hence, as no Grant has been extracted, the heir hunters fees are based on a contingency fee model.

However, Finders offer all solicitors or Personal Representatives referring heir tracing work to them additional inclusive services and guarantees which other firms may not offer, such as:

  • finding all the entitled heirs to share in an estate
  • proving prior claimant categories have been ruled out
  • proving termination of lines
  • providing evidence sufficient to obtain indemnity insurance
  • searching for a possible will
  • offering to agree percentage fee limit in advance
  • agreeing to report in full regardless of the outcome
  • not withholding any research or reports in order to secure fees
  • adhering to our Professional Conduct Code visible on our website
  • providing sufficient information to beneficiaries we locate to enable them to make an informed choice as to whether or not they wish to retain our services on a contingency fee basis.

Finders are also approved agents for Aviva (formerly Norwich Union) and can obtain Missing Beneficiary Indemnity Policies quickly and cost-effectively whenever required. Once all heir hunting has been completed, it is important that the inheriting beneficiaries are protected from possible claims in the future. Without proper professional probate genealogy completed by Finders, we are unable to obtain such policies. Missing Beneficiary Indemnity Insurance, is often a vital part of the finalising process prior to Estate Distribution. Each beneficiary will be protected once such a policy is in place; something that beneficiaries will find provides peace of mind in the event of an illegitimate beneficiary or previously unknown heir coming forward at a later date and claiming a share. Missing beneficiary Indemnity Insurance can also be purchased simply as a ‘comfort’ when there is no suggestion of any missing heirs or possible future claims.

How to establish whether or not an Heir Hunters fee option is fair

Not all situations where beneficiary tracing is required have universal criteria and a good firm of probate genealogists will provide a free quotation.

Finders offer four fee options, but not all are suitable for every situation. The situations are, as you can imagine, too numerous to list, but we will offer advice and recommendations whenever appropriate. In general it is sound advice to:

  • Ask for a free no-obligation quotation to suit the circumstances of the case
  • Consider how the heirs known to the Estate already will be best served.
  • Consider Finders contingency fee option as it is the lowest risk option for the probate professional.
  • Avoid offers to “defer a fee”, especially where there is no Grant.

There is no simple answer, no one fee option is ‘better’ than any other, it all depends on the individual requirements of each case.

As with most problems, taking advice from experts is a good idea and Finders will happily provide free advice, estimates and quotations.

Finders can be contacted at 6-8 Vestry Street London N1 7RE. Tel: +44 (0)20 7490 4935 www.findersUK.com e-mail: [email protected]

Daniel Curran
Written by Daniel Curran
Daniel is a leading figure in the UK Heir Hunting industry. He is from Isleworth in West London and has lived in London for most of his life. He has been in the probate genealogy profession since 1990. He formed Finders in 1997 after 7 years at another firm.