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Some probate detectives fail to play fair as HEIR HUNTERS industry grows unchecked | #daitngscams | #lovescams | #datingscams | #love | #relationships | #scams | #pof | #match.com | #dating

Fair game: Probate detectives track down next-of-kin to unclaimed estates

When Jadwiga Berger was confronted by a man she had never met on her doorstep in October 2019, the 82-year-old was faced with a shocking revelation. The frail and vulnerable pensioner was told that her estranged daughter, 49-year-old Michelle Berger had died, had left an unclaimed estate and Berger could be a beneficiary. But there was a catch.

She would have to sign a contract handing over ten per cent of the estate, which she duly did. It is a contract that is now the subject of a bitter High Court dispute.

However, what is most shocking is that this incident is not illegal, far from it, but rather is common practice across England and Wales. This tale, which we will return to, is not laid out in a Victorian melodrama but in a High Court claim that might tempt one to conclude that where there is brass, there is muck.

Welcome then to the world of the so-called heir hunters – the probate detectives and genealogists who track down next-of-kin to unclaimed estates in return for a generous cut.

So, good material, one might think, for a documentary series. For more than a decade the BBC’s hit series, The Heir Hunters, tracked down people entitled to a slice of a distant relative’s unclaimed estate.

What the BBC was less assiduous in exploring was the murky practices deployed by some of these probate detectives in a world that is entirely unregulated.

At first glimpse, this is a world steeped in arcane language and archaic legal procedures – but when it comes to the world of money, it always pays to watch the bottom line or who gets what.

Probate refers to the legal process by which a will is approved by the courts and its granting probate is the first step in dividing the deceased person’s estate.

Where someone dies intestate there are automatic laws as to who should inherit.

In descending order, this begins with the spouse or civil partner, children, grandchildren and, after that, living parents, siblings, their children and so on. But if no relatives can be found, then an estate is classified as ‘bona vacantia’ meaning unclaimed goods.

Where no next-of-kin is established then after six months or so, the estate ultimately goes to the Government.

From 2012-22, there were 23,615 cases where people died intestate with estates classified as bona vacantia. Each week these are listed online by the Government Legal Department.

This has traditionally been the starting gun for many heir hunter firms that try to be the first to track down the next-of-kin. These investigators will invariably approach the next-of-kin and offer a quid pro quo. Sign our contract for perhaps as much as 25 per cent and we will reveal the name of the deceased. Just to add to the confusion, the potential beneficiary will often have no idea as to the value of the estate. The difference between 20 per cent of £10,000 and £1million is stark. Remarkably, heir hunters are under no obligation to reveal even a rough value of the estate at that point.

This contingency agreement is still widely prevalent and like much concerned with the world of heir hunters, has been the subject of controversy, with some arguing that fixed-fee arrangements are more ethical. The total official value of these unclaimed estates ultimately appears to be elusive because the authorities are not required to keep an overall tally. But to give a flavour of just how lucrative a sector this is, we could do worse than look at two of its most prolific characters.

Brothers Tom and Danny Curran are proof positive that the world of genealogy is often, appropriately, a family affair. But this has not always been a love-in, because they have been direct commercial rivals who have clashed in the past as they sought to expand their influential empires. 

Although Tom Curran has stepped back from frontline duties, he remains a shareholder in a sprawling network of well-known and related companies, that was started by his father. This includes Title Research, a well-established heir hunting firm, and the Kings Court Trust, which offers estate management and will drafting.

He owns a £2million modern barn conversion on the edge of the South Downs National Park, in West Sussex. In recent years, Curran has persuaded the reclusive Anna Margaret Smedvig, a London-based heiress to an £800million Norwegian shipping empire, to invest in his companies, which she now controls.

But if Tom Curran and Smedvig are happy to stay out of the limelight, his brother is not so shy.

Danny Curran was one of the leading lights behind the BBC’s Heir Hunters programme along with his company Finders International. Danny owns a beautiful five-bedroom Art Deco house on an exclusive private road in Highbury, North London, boasting cinema, and car lift to an underground garage. He has championed ‘ethical hunting’, which emphasises honesty and best practice, as well as ‘calling out unscrupulous behaviour’ and ‘badgering potential beneficiaries in person’.

All laudable aims, but it is Danny Curran’s company Finders at the centre of the High Court battle with Ms Berger, which, whether right or wrong, raises ethical and moral questions around the industry.

The combative Curran disputes Berger’s allegations and states that, in late September 2019, his company was instructed by a legal firm to find Michelle Berger’s next-of-kin and on 1 October wrote to Jadwiga Berger, although it is disputed when she received the letter.

But what is not disputed is that the very next day, a Finders representative turned up on Berger’s doorstep and she signed a deal that the firm would be paid ten per cent plus VAT from Michelle Berger’s estate.

In February 2021, the net value of the estate was officially set at £1.74million and, according to the claim, in June that year, Finders was told that Berger ‘would be entirely disputing (Finders) claim under the agreement’. 

In December 2021, Finders issued a letter before claim, warning Berger that they were intending to take legal action and the High Court claim was issued in March this year, for £209,000. However, Berger’s legal team claims that she owes them nothing.

Large payout: Peter and Philip Turvey, above, received a £40,000 settlement from Curran's Finders International

Large payout: Peter and Philip Turvey, above, received a £40,000 settlement from Curran’s Finders International

Said to be vulnerable due to her declining health, Polish-born Berger appointed a litigation friend, Arabella Budd, a businesswoman and family friend from South London.

She said: ‘Jadwiga [pronounced Yaja] was not in regular contact with her daughter. It was complicated for various reasons.

‘It was only a few weeks between her daughter dying and this guy turning up at the door. The whole thing has been very distressing.’ Berger’s High Court defence claims that the agreement Berger purportedly entered into is void and unenforceable on the grounds that ‘Ms Berger did not know or understand the detail of what she was signing or why’. 

It adds that she was ‘vulnerable to suggestion and persuasion…lacked independent legal advice, spoke English as a second language… and was not aware of the size of her daughter’s estate.’ It also claims Finders are ‘morally culpable’ and that their representative ‘told her there was a fee of one per cent, alternatively two per cent, relating to Michelle’s estate.’

Finders dispute Berger’s defence from start to finish. They state that she has produced ‘no expert evidence’ regarding her mental capacity, denied any ‘impropriety’ in approaching her at her home, or that she was told the fee was only one to two per cent.

Finders state that ‘it is denied the agreement was unfair or unreasonable’ and denied it had ‘acted in a manner, which is morally improper or culpable’.

During our investigation, This is Money’s sister title The Mail on Sunday has learned that Labour-run Birmingham Council, where Michelle Berger had previously lived, signed a lucrative contract with Finders International to feed them bona vacantia leads.

Bereaved relatives might wonder how ethical this arrangement is, but court documents show the tip to Finders about Berger’s death actually came from a local legal firm. Arabella said: ‘We think we have a really good case; I can’t believe anyone thinks that is a fair contract, and we’re going to fight it.’

This is not the first legal wrangle for Danny Curran.

In 2019, he agreed to pay £40,000 in an out-of-court settlement to father and son Peter and Philip Turvey, who have conducted research for the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? Curran and his company were accused of sending a series of abusive and libellous emails to the Turveys and their company Anglia Research.

Philip Turvey is understandably reticent about commenting on Curran and Finders but believes that the BBC’s Heir Hunters drew in hordes of ‘amateur hunters’ who saw this as a ‘get rich quick scheme’. He said: ‘I think the programme encouraged rogue operators to enter the market.

Dispute: Danny Curran featured on TV's Heir Hunters

Dispute: Danny Curran featured on TV’s Heir Hunters

‘Now we have more and more records available online, so they can be searched easily and quickly but because of data and privacy, tracking people down has become harder. You do see people cutting corners. They will find one or two relatives rather than tracing the entire family who are equally entitled.’ A good example dates back to 2013, when Scottish firm Worldwide Genealogy Ltd was convicted of ten counts of fraud after trying to con a family out of nearly £250,000 inheritance.

Patricia Byrne, David Mitchell, and Lesley Mitchell were persuaded to sign up with Worldwide after their 93-year-old aunt Charlotte Cook died in a care home intestate. The court heard they were conned into paying 40 per cent of any inheritance in commission and expenses despite not being told who had died and how much money was involved.

Judge Richard Parkes told Reading Crown Court that the company was guilty of ‘calculated, cynical and well-planned frauds’.

The concern is that this case barely scratches the surface because of the lack of any statutory regulation and beneficiaries struggling to get expert independent advice. Turvey believes that self-regulation can still play a part, with Anglia Research members of the Association of Probate Researchers, which offers people a complaints process.

Yet even here the industry is divided with a rival professional body in the International Association of Probate Researchers, which includes Finders among its members. Closer scrutiny of Companies House records reveals that the IAPR was actually set up by Danny Curran and is registered to the same address as Finders.

No wonder then that Neil Fraser, whose family firm Fraser & Fraser has roots going back a century, is adamant that only statutory regulation can protect future beneficiaries. He said: ‘As soon as death and money are involved you get greed. We have to deal with that all the time. We need regulation because we are dealing with everything that should be regulated.

Filling in the gaps: Heir hunters specialise in situations where someone has passed away without making a will laying out what should happen to their estate

Filling in the gaps: Heir hunters specialise in situations where someone has passed away without making a will laying out what should happen to their estate

‘First, we are dealing with money, a deceased person’s money, and the second reason is because we deal with the law. Once you have obtained grants or letters of administration, we are able to close bank accounts, sell properties, collect all the money, and get it in cash. But nobody actually does any checking of all that work.’

Fraser believes that the UK legal system, with its emphasis on ‘swearing on the Bible’ or, in essence, trust, is ripe for exploitation. This system failure starts with the fact that often no one is actually authorised to appoint heir hunters or anyone else to chase down next-of-kin. 

Many within the industry regard this as unprincipled because they might not have the authority but in any event the finder’s fee should be paid by the estate not the beneficiary. Because most estates’ value rests in bricks and mortar, firms will often appoint favoured estate agents to conduct sales knowing few will question if this is in the estate’s best interests.

From the outside, however, the ethical distinctions between these different practices adopted by heir hunters can seem obscure, if not irrelevant, if you are offered thousands of pounds. Fraser believes that above all else the key is ‘fair, effective, and ethical fees’ but in the absence of regulation this will remain a bone of contention.

Phil Turvey cites just one modest case as proof positive that all parties can benefit. He said: ‘We recently dealt with the estate of Edward Porter who died in Great Yarmouth but was born in South Africa.

Genealogy expert Professor Lesley King: 'There are a lot of genealogists doing a perfectly respectable and decent job¿

Genealogy expert Professor Lesley King: ‘There are a lot of genealogists doing a perfectly respectable and decent job’

‘We located his sister Margaret in South Africa, who had lost contact with him 15 years earlier. It was only £8,000 and we got ten per cent of that but it was of great comfort to her to know what had happened to her brother. We do provide a valuable service and transparency with clients is very important.’

Professor Lesley King, an expert in this field, believes that the heir hunters often provide a valuable and necessary service. She said: ‘There are a lot of genealogists doing a perfectly respectable and decent job. Finding people on the bona vacantia lists and then saying to a person, ‘Do you want to pay me for my information?’ I think we can ask if that is so very wrong? Because the person contacted doesn’t know they are entitled to anything until someone tells them.’

Prof King believes that those determined not to pay the heir hunters for a cut should simply see if they can track down their lost relative using online records.

Given that the bona vacantia list now stretches to more than 6,500 estates, there is good reason to check your family tree. You can find the list online here.

And it is worth bearing in mind that even estates that have been claimed by the state can still be recovered by next-of-kin for up to 30 years.

But for those not prepared to turn into amateur sleuths and track down a long-lost relative’s fortune, the chances are they will have to cut a deal with an heir hunter.

If approached by heir hunters then in the first instance you need to seek independent legal advice. Do not be railroaded into signing any documents. Finders, in its court submission, states that it gets ‘up to three thousand referrals a year on the same (or a similar) basis as that involved in (the Berger) case’.

Danny Curran will insist that there is nothing wrong with this and legally, at least, it would appear that he is right.

A Birmingham City Council spokesman said that the contract with Finders was both legal and ethical but refused to reveal the size of the contract because it was commercially sensitive.

However, Arabella Budd believes that it is time for the Government to step in and regulate heir hunters and she is not alone. She said: ‘I found it completely shocking there was no moral or legal regulation.’

Danny Curran said of Berger’s defence: ‘The allegations are denied. No issue was raised until nearly a year after Mrs Berger had retained our services. We have clear evidence that we acted fairly, professionally, and honestly throughout.’

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