Have you ever dreamt of a surprise windfall from a long-lost relative? If you do your homework carefully, great expectations could soon be winging their way in your direction.

There are around 20,000 unclaimed estates waiting to distribute hundreds of millions of pounds to rightful heirs, with more coming on-stream every week. Last year alone, £21m was paid out to the not so nearest and dearest.

Rising property prices combined with smaller and more geographically scattered families are resulting in more individuals dying without any close relatives to benefit from valuable estates. A recent case researched by the company Finders involved an Italian airman who had worked on a farm in England while a prisoner of war. He married and had a daughter. When his wife died young, he returned to Italy, married again and had three children, without ever mentioning his earlier family.

The daughter of his first marriage died without a will or heirs, leaving a sizeable estate, including the farm where the airman had been held captive. The three children of the second marriage in Italy were in for two big shocks when Finders knocked at their door.

Under intestacy rules in England and Wales, a spouse has first call if the deceased died without a will, receiving the first £250,000 plus a life interest in half of the rest, which passes to the children on his, or her, death. The children get the remainder, plus what passes on the spouse’s death. Their inheritance passes down to their children.

Such beneficiaries will be missing in an unclaimed estate. Then the money passes down the blood line, regardless of marriages and name changes. Brothers and sisters have the next call after children, and if they have predeceased a sibling, their money is shared between their sons and daughters, as the cash cascades down the blood line. If there are no siblings, then half- brothers and sisters and their descendants may have a claim.

If you still haven’t found anyone, then you can throw the net wider to grandparents, uncles and aunts and their descendants, followed by half-blood uncles and aunts and their descendants. After that the Crown takes the cash.

As administrator, you are likely to have a massive job on your hands, and may need to employ a solicitor. Daniel Curran of Finders said: “One problem is that the online registers have been typed in manually, and there is a high proportion of errors. We go back to primary sources, and have a variety of sources to cross check, and make sure we are correctly identifying beneficiaries.”

Use a professional

Solicitors may recommend using a firm of professional heir hunters. Professional firms of heir hunters race against time to track down beneficiaries of wills. Some work almost exclusively on instructions from solicitor.

Those (heir hunters working from a list of unclaimed estates) do not know the size of the estate when they embark on a search, but gamble it will be big enough to justify their often considerable research costs. Finders’ Daniel Curran said: “We are always happy to negotiate with the beneficiaries, and cap any commission. Sometimes the commission can look high as a proportion, but this would normally be where small, complex estates were involved, and costs have been high.”

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.