The Real Life Heir Hunters
by Amy Pettitt, Associate Solicitor
Many people enjoy watching TV shows like Heir Hunters in which long lost relatives receive life changing inheritances from a distant relative they were not even aware of, but this rarely happens in reality. What really happens to an estate when somebody dies without leaving a Will depends on the family that the deceased has left behind.
In a case where the deceased did not leave a Will, solicitors look to the Intestacy Rules. These rules determine how the estate will be divided according to a strict formula based on the family tree. This is fairly straightforward when there is a surviving member of their immediate family. This can include spouses, children, siblings or even parents but the process becomes much more difficult when there is no immediate surviving family.
That is when we need to call in the real life Heir Hunters. Understandably, this is less glamorous than when it is shown on TV, but what really happens? In my experience it is a long, frustrating and expensive process, as well as potentially upsetting or disappointing for the beneficiaries. It is almost certainly not how the deceased would have wanted their estate to be administered.
In a recent example, the deceased was an only child, both of her parents had died, she had never married and she had no children. In such a case, we next have to trace the aunts and uncles on both sides of her family. With the help of Heir Hunters, we discovered that she had 8 aunts who had all died before her, but who had left children of their own (the deceased’s cousins). Some of the cousins had also died before her again leaving children of their own (the deceased’s second cousins). The Intestacy Rules require her estate to be split into 8 equal parts with each part passing to the children and/or grandchildren of the deceased’s aunts.
The family tree is vast. So far we have managed to identify 70 beneficiaries, many of whom had never met or even heard of the deceased. It is now over 10 years since the deceased died and nobody has yet received a penny from her estate because we have still not been able to trace all of the beneficiaries and we can’t pay out until we have. There will not be much left for any of the beneficiaries as the estate was only worth £20,000 and most of this will go towards the cost of tracing the beneficiaries. So these beneficiaries will not be getting the nice surprise that we see on television.
Surely this is not what the deceased would have wanted. It could have been so easily avoided if the deceased had made a Will. It is difficult to understand why she didn’t make one, it is possible she thought that she didn’t have enough to need one. However, if she had made a Will she could have left what she did have to a few people that she really cared about rather than having it divided between a lot of people that she didn’t even know.