Heir Hunter Faces £250,000 Bill for Belligerent and Misleading Behaviour

Where people fail to make professionally drafted wills, so-called heir hunters provide a valuable service in tracking down potential beneficiaries. However, as a High Court case showed, their activities are unregulated and they cannot always be relied upon to act with the utmost care and probity.

The case concerned a woman who owned assets worth about £600,000 when she died, aged 98. After her former home, by far her largest asset, had been vacant for some time, the local authority asked an heir hunter to trace members of her family who might be entitled to inherit.

With a view to earning a commission of about £75,000, the heir hunter succeeded in identifying about 30 relatives and, after one of them granted him a power of attorney, he took control of the estate as administrator. He took steps to clear the house, change its locks and sell it at auction.

It subsequently emerged, however, that the woman had in fact made a will by which she left her home to a nephew and £122,000 to 22 animal charities. The original document could not be found, but a niece whom she had appointed as her executor was able to produce a copy.

The heir hunter had, however, persisted in his inquiries. Amongst other things, he conducted a trawl through medical records in an attempt to show that the woman had lacked mental capacity to make a valid will. He eventually accepted the validity of the will, relinquished his role as administrator and withdrew the house from auction, but sought to charge his £134,000 costs against the estate.

However, in ruling that he should pay all the legal costs incurred in the dispute – a total of more than £250,000 – a judge noted that he was primarily focused on financial gain. Although he was aware of the nephew’s potential interest, he had consciously and deliberately failed to disclose it when obtaining appointment as administrator.

In continuing with his inquiries and running up disproportionate costs, he had behaved in a belligerent, obstructive and provocative manner with the intention of bringing pressure to bear upon the nephew to withdraw or settle his claim. He had viewed the matter as a purely commercial venture and there had never been any factual basis for asserting that the will was invalid.