Could you get a long lost family fortune as TV shows claim?

A knock on the front door. This is not a parcel delivery or lost pizza delivery driver but an ‘heir hunter’ offering a life-changing inheritance windfall. He mentions a name you have never even heard of – a long-lost black sheep of the family. 

This unknown relative has died leaving behind a small fortune and the family tree sleuth on the doorstep believes that you should be coming forward to claim a lucrative slice of the pie. 

You have every right to be suspicious. There are plenty of fraudsters out there hoping to con you with such a trick – and grab any inheritance they can find. And even the reputable firms charge a hefty commission of 10 to 30 per cent of proceeds. 

Mission accomplished: Heir hunter Danny Curran traced Amy Fabris

Mission accomplished: Heir hunter Danny Curran traced Amy Fabris

Mission accomplished: Heir hunter Danny Curran traced Amy Fabris

FATHER I NEVER KNEW HAS LEFT ME £7,000 

Amy Fabris did not even know her estranged father – he left her mother pregnant before she was even born when they were living in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). 

The 47-year-old dental nurse from Bournemouth is not bitter, but neither does she mourn the death of Italian-born Giampietro Fabris. She was tracked down in June following the 72-year-old’s death earlier in the year and is now expecting an inheritance of £7,000. 

Amy was contacted by Finders International on behalf of Brent Council, which asked the firm for help after discovering that her father died at his sheltered accommodation home in Wembley, North West London, with no will or obvious relatives. 

The trail finder was able to confirm that Amy was his child as his name had been included on her birth certificate. Amy says: ‘It was a total surprise. Although he never contributed to the family when I was growing up, this windfall can provide a small comfort. 

‘I hope to take my mother on a holiday cruise in the future.’

But before slamming the door in their face, take a deep breath. Thousands each year enjoy a windfall thanks to their help and you could indeed be one of them. So unlike most cold-callers it could pay to hear this one out. 

Heir hunter Danny Curran, of Finders International, who also goes by the fancy titles of probate detective and forensic genealogist, says: ‘It is natural to be wary and if someone knocks on your door you should ask to see identity documents and call their company to confirm details if you feel nervous. 

‘You do not have to sign anything immediately. Check to see if they are a member of the trade body, the International Association of Professional Probate Researchers, which has a code of practice plus a mediation service to handle any complaints.’ More than 300,000 people die without a will every year and at least half leave an estate worth thousands of pounds that could be worth chasing. 

Crucially, genuine heir hunters try to find those who are in line for a windfall rather than waiting for business to come to them. That’s why it could be worth hearing what they have to say on your doorstep. 

Curran says: ‘The amount left behind to those we contact varies hugely – we have handed out anything from as little as £6.95 to more than £1million. We often do not know the full amount until we have completed our investigations as the final inheritance pot can end up shared out between many relatives. We like to tell people in person if we believe they could be a beneficiary. Because the person has died intestate – with no will – they are often estranged from family. 

He adds: ‘We get the full range of reactions. Some people have been distraught and burst into tears while others want to dance on the grave of relatives they fell out with. Often a recipient has no idea who the person was.’ 

Curran unravels what looks like a kitchen roll in front of me on the desk, which turns out to be a lengthy family tree with hundreds of names handwritten on it. 

Having recently been given a name from a local council of someone who died in a care home with £50,000 to his name, the heir hunter initially had nothing more to go on than a death certificate, with details of the person’s previous address and age.

Rooting around he bought a copy of the man’s birth certificate from the General Register Office, accessed via the internet. These cost from £11 to £35 depending on how urgently you want them and if you have a reference number. 

From here, Curran discovered the name of the parents and got copies of marriage certificates, also purchased online from the General Register Office. But in this hit-and-miss affair, some 200 or more certificates might often be bought before the detective is certain of finding the true parents that match up – and can then lead the trail to other siblings. 

The parents of an elderly person who has died may have been born a century ago. Curran also delves for free into the national census archive online – open for viewing from 1841 to 1911. Websites such as Ancestry and Findmypast offer resources that might also help with this spadework. 

In addition, heir hunters do the traditional gumshoe detective work of walking the streets and speaking with neighbours about what they know. An heir hunter has to find all the family of the deceased and report their findings to a solicitor given responsibility for winding up the estate. 

This  entire process can take 18 months. You will not be able to get your cut until it is calculated if other family members are also due a windfall. The order of inheritance starts with spouse, children, parents, brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, then half-brothers and sisters. Next it is grandparents, before other branches of a family tree start to be explored. 

After 30 years, an unclaimed estate is deemed to be Bona Vacantia – which is a Latin term for ‘ownerless goods’. At this point the Government gets to pocket the whole lot. 

But why bother to employ a hunter – surely you can go it alone to track down your inheritance now you’ve been tipped off to that potential pot of gold? 

Curran says: ‘Of course, there is nothing to stop you going it alone but although it may sound easy, the process is time consuming and can cost quite a bit of money with no guarantee you will get anything at the end. You are paying for this service.’ 

You can turn sleuth yourself and find if you have money owing by visiting the Government Legal Department website at gov.uk/government/organisations/government-legal-department. Scroll down the page until you come to the ‘unclaimed estates list’. This includes details of deceased people with money still left to be claimed – stretching back up to 30 years. 

Names are provided in a spreadsheet format detailing people in alphabetic order, along with date of death, address, age and other information, such as possible alias names they may also have used. There are currently almost 8,000 names on this list. 

If you have an unusual surname this is an obvious place to start – but look at your family tree for other maiden names that could provide a link. details are updated every day and if you believe you might have a claim then simply click on the ‘make a claim to a deceased person’s estate’.  

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