How to find missing beneficiaries

Anyone familiar with BBC One’s Heir Hunters programme will know about the otherwise relatively unknown and niche industry of probate genealogy research. When someone passes away, they leave behind an estate; it’s necessary to distribute that estate to the rightful heirs, known as beneficiaries. As the programme highlights, it’s not always easy to identify who should benefit from the estate or, if the beneficiary is known, to locate their whereabouts.

Probate researchers, casually known as heir hunters, make it their business to find missing beneficiaries to unclaimed estates. When there are missing beneficiaries, it can significantly delay the probate process. Below we take a look at the role of probate genealogists and the steps they take to locate missing beneficiaries in the UK and abroad.

Discharging your financial liability as the personal representative

Anyone responsible for dealing with the estate has a number of legal duties and obligations they must perform to ensure beneficiaries are correctly identified and located. If there is a Will, it will name an executor who takes on this responsibility. If there is no Will, meaning the person has died intestate, then the person’s next of kin (usually their spouse, civil partner or child) can apply for the responsibility of administering the estate as the administrator. Both roles, the executor and administrator, can simply be known as the personal representative.

On occasion, our probate solicitors may recommend engaging specialist genealogists and probate researchers to ensure the personal representative has taken all necessary steps to discharge their duties. If the personal representative does not take reasonable steps to locate a beneficiary, they need to be mindful that their duties to the estate is for life. Unknown or untraceable beneficiaries, at the time of estate administration, can later file for a claim for their entitled share of the estate. If steps weren’t taken to identify or locate the beneficiary, the personal representative can be held personally liable to pay for the rightful beneficiary’s share. This liability exists regardless of the size of the estate, and so if it’s a large estate then it could prove quite costly! Ensuring a thorough genealogical search is undertaken to locate beneficiaries, known and unknown, can prove very worthwhile.

The probate research process

The level of expertise and investigation needed to find a beneficiary will depend on whether they are known or missing, the nature of the estate, and whether there are any further complexities, such as whether beneficiaries have relocated internationally or changed their names due to marriage or divorce.

Heir hunters will use every tool at their disposal to try and identify and locate missing beneficiaries. This can include a thorough and multi-faceted approach that includes making local enquiries, visiting family members face-to-face, searching through birth, death and marriage records, libraries and archive offices or online records, and using historic family trees to try and trace the rightful heir.

Searches for people who live in areas affected by natural disasters or wars can be quite difficult. So too can searching for beneficiaries who have an Irish heritage because of how private and public records were stored, a fire that broke out in the 19th Century at the Four Courts in Dublin where the records were kept, and missing census data due to the Civil War.

To overcome challenges like these, professional probate genealogists work with strategic partners on the ground who know how local records are stored, speak the local language and have relationships with archivists, who are often able to access data that is generally not publicly available.

Finding a known beneficiary

Identifying the location of a known beneficiary, who could be mentioned in the Will, can be as simple as placing a deceased estate notice in The Gazette (the official UK public record) and in a newspaper that’s local to the deceased.

Finding an unknown or unlocatable beneficiary

When it comes to finding an unknown or unlocatable beneficiary, the situation is more complicated. If placing a notice doesn't produce any results, the personal representative of the estate must find other ways to trace the beneficiary, such as hiring a professional genealogist and international probate research agency like Fraser & Fraser to carry out a thorough investigation.

Before choosing an heir hunter, there are some quick checks you can do to ensure they’re legitimate, professional and reputable. Firstly, make sure you’re choosing a company that is registered through Companies House. Secondly, look for memberships to special bodies; in 2016, Fraser & Fraser were one of the founding firms of the Association of Probate Researchers, a member body of The Professional Paralegal Register (PPR) and the first regulatory body in the probate research industry. Thirdly, do some online research to see what people are saying about their experience with the probate genealogists you’re considering using. Reviews aren’t always everything to go by, but they can provide useful insights as to professionalism, efficiency and overall service.

An average benchmark that heir hunters charge for usual domestic cases is between 15% and 25% of the beneficiary’s share of the estate; Fraser & Fraser reported that around a third of their domestic cases attracted a 15% fee. Given there are a number of heir hunters competing to trace beneficiaries, it can be hard to know which is the best agency to use. Fraser & Fraser have put together some useful facts about what to look out for and what to know before agreeing to use an heir hunter, or what to know if you’ve been approved as a beneficiary by an heir hunter, which you can view here.

What if a beneficiary can’t be found?

If a beneficiary can't be located, the personal representative can refer the unclaimed estate to the Treasury Solicitor. In order to notify the Bona Vacantia division that a person has died without leaving a Will or any known blood relatives, you must include the original death certificate and a fully completed BV1A referral form. More information about this process can be found on the government’s website here. A case cannot generally be referred if there is a valid Will. The latest list from the Bina Vacantia division shows there is currently 8,514 unclaimed estates. If someone considers they're entitled to an unclaimed estate, they can contact the Bona Vacantia Estates division directly or can work with a probate genealogist.

Missing Beneficiaries’ Insurance

Depending on the outcome of a genealogical search, it may be advisable for personal representatives to take out Missing Beneficiaries’ Insurance. This insurance protects against the risk of a beneficiary, unknown at the time, coming forward later to make a claim to the estate after is has been distributed. The insurance covers the estate's value at the distribution date and an escalator clause, which accounts for any interest that may have accrued.

Expert probate solicitors

A missing beneficiary can cause delays in the probate process, which can lead to increased costs in order to track down the entitled persons.

The right expert probate solicitor can help to ensure a streamlined and efficient administration of the estate regardless of its complexity. Sometimes it may be advisable to involve probate genealogists in order to fully discharge your liability as the personal representative and to make the most cost-effective headway in identifying or locating beneficiaries.

For any estate administration queries, contact your local probate solicitor on 08082747557.

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