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How to find out if you’re the heir to a fortune

Romanesque bust with a fine art painting of an angel in a Jacobean country house.
Tracking down your unknown relatives could net you a surprise cash windfall or even an extensive art collection - Latitudestock/Gallo Images

If you receive an inheritance, you are highly likely to have an intimate relationship with the person who has died. Maybe they were a relative or a close friend.

But in some unusual cases, you can find yourself as the beneficiary of the estate of someone you barely knew – perhaps a distant relative who died without making a will.

A surprise cash inheritance can be a very welcome windfall for families, and could help pay off debts, fund a once-in-a-lifetime holiday, or even set them up for retirement.

In other cases, families can inherit extensive collections. For example, Telegraph Money previously reported on a stash of roughly 100,000 records worth £425,000 which was left unclaimed before heir hunters tracked down the deceased’s 78-year-old cousin.

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But potential beneficiaries should also beware of “cowboy” genealogists, who look to capitalise on easier access to online information and a growing awareness of unexpected inheritances to rip off clients.

When might you get an unexpected inheritance?

When a person dies without making a will, they are left “intestate”. This can also happen if their will was invalid, perhaps because it wasn’t made in writing in the presence of two witnesses. A person can also be left intestate if their will does not distribute all of their money, possessions and property.

In these cases, control of the estate is taken over by a department called Bona Vacantia (meaning “vacant goods”), which is part of the Government Legal Department, overseen by the Treasury Solicitor.

Anyone can check the Bona Vacantia website for details of deaths since 1997 (before this date records are kept in paper), with new updates on unclaimed estates published every day. Claimed estates are also removed.

In Scotland, unclaimed estates are investigated by the National Ultimus Haeres Unit, and family members can make a claim via that department. These estates are also listed on the Bona Vacantia site.

While government officials will make their own enquiries to track down family members of the deceased, they may also refer cases to private investigators.

Cash which is not claimed within 12 years, goes into the Treasury coffers, but some parts of an estate can be claimed for up to 30 years.

There are currently more than 6,000 unclaimed estates listed on the Bona Vacantia website. One popular surname, “Smith”, has more than 100 entries on the unclaimed estates list, whereas “Taylor” has 37 entries and “Jones” has 66.

If you want to see if you could benefit from an unknown relative, it can help to have an interest in genealogy so you can work out if you have any unknown family members.

Otherwise, there are a plethora of “heir hunting” firms which have been created specifically to track down lost relatives or estates. They have even spawned their own BBC series Heir Hunters.

Maurice Clarke, founder of the Heir Hunters Association, previously said: “Tracking down long-lost relatives and claiming on an estate is not as easy as it sounds. Names change through the generations and often the name of the deceased means nothing at all to the beneficiaries.”

Who can claim?

Family members of the deceased might have a potential claim to the estate. However, even if you do find a long-lost relative who has died interstate, you might not be the person entitled to the money.

The order in which relatives are entitled to receive an inheritance is determined by the Administration of Estates Act 1925, with additional rules for spouses set out by the Inheritance and Trustees’ Powers Act 2014.

Typically, where there are no children, a surviving spouse is entitled to the full estate. If there are surviving children, then the spouse is entitled to “moveable chattels” and a statutory legacy, before the remaining estate is divided between the spouse and children.

For example, if a husband dies leaving an estate of £450,000 without a will, then his surviving spouse would inherit the first £322,000 and all moveable property – things such as furniture or jewellery. If they had one child, that child would then be entitled to half of the remaining £128,000, or £64,000.

While the days of illegitimate children being barred from inheritance ended in 1987, only adoptions made by court order in the UK or foreign adoptions recognised by UK law are relevant for determining inheritance.

Parents are next on the list, followed by full brothers or sisters, or their children, and then half-siblings. Beyond this are other family members such as grandparents, aunts and uncles.

The amount distributed will depend on this hierarchy.

If there is anyone with a stronger connection to the deceased than you, then you will not receive a proportion of the inheritance. For example, siblings are only entitled to the estate if the deceased has no living parents.

If an estate is claimed and then someone with a better claim comes forward, this can create issues. Larger fortune hunting companies typically have insurance to cover this possibility.

How can I make a claim?

If you believe that you are related to a deceased person on the unclaimed estates list, you can submit a claim to the Bona Vacantia Department.

You will need to send a family tree showing your relation to the individual, including the dates of birth, marriage and death of all of those who are included.

If your claim is deemed to be legitimate, the department will ask for documentary evidence, including full birth certificates and identification documents, alongside explanations for any discrepancies.

Provisional driving licences, mobile phone bills and credit card statements are not accepted as proof of identity.

It could also ask for paper certified copies of census records or the 1939 register.

The department cannot provide families with advice on how to prove their claim, and advises potential beneficiaries to contact a solicitor, local law centre or Citizens Advice for help.

If the Treasury accepts your claim, it will normally appoint you as the estate administrator, which means you have a legal responsibility to track down any other living relatives with a potential claim.

This can be a lot of work, and many turn to an heir hunter service for help, usually in return for a percentage of the estate. In these cases, you will be asked to confirm who will be acting as the estate administrator.

For relatively small estates of less than £15,000, payment is usually fairly straightforward. For larger or more complicated estates the process could be more drawn out and require beneficiaries to sign some legal documentation.

Should I use an heir hunter?

If you think you may be entitled to an unclaimed estate, you can engage a professional firm of heir hunters to investigate. You could also be contacted by such a firm if they believe you could be a beneficiary.

Some are instructed solely by solicitors but others will check the lists on their own initiative to try and hunt down potential heirs.

Of course, they will charge a percentage-based fee for the service.

Those working from the lists 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.

Using a firm can dramatically cut down the amount of work and administration required for a family to claim an estate, but will also mean that the size of the payment received will be reduced.

If you are approached by an heir hunter, do not sign anything until you are in possession of the full facts about the size of the estate, the number of beneficiaries, and size of the commission.

The industry standard finders’ fee is 25pc, but experts have warned that some firms have been known to charge more than this, or for ill-defined, administrative expenses worth thousands of pounds. It is important to do your research on the company involved.

There have even been cases of fraudulent heir hunters simply failing to hand over the money once it has been recovered. One such heir hunter was handed a two-year jail sentence for this offence in 2017.

The sector is unregulated, so it may be difficult to get any money back if something goes wrong.