The inheritance hunters

When the wealthy die intestate, it is often the start of some far-reaching investigations. By Paul Slade
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It bears the hallmark of a hoary Hollywood cliche: an unexpected letter telling you that a family member you hardly knew has died, and that you are due for a windfall. Yet for a handful of people around the world, relatives of an Edinburgh woman named Helen Lowe, the letter may mean a slice of a pounds 7m bequest.

Ms Lowe died in November 1997, leaving a fortune - but no will. The case has yet to be settled, but Title Research (the firm of genealogists tracking down distant members of her family) has already found valid claimants to her estate as far afield as Australia.

Her case has turned the spotlight on a little-known profession which combines dry historical research with private detective work. Stephen Rigden of Title Research says: "Because of the nature of our work, the people we are dealing with have often lost contact with their families. The people we are finding are first cousins once removed or twice removed, and most of them have never heard of Helen Lowe. So these people really are being contacted out of the blue."

Far from being delighted when they receive a letter like this, many people are initially suspicious. Given that Title Research will be asking for copies of personal documents such as birth certificates or passport (both of which are valuable to forgers) this is natural enough. Rigden's advice is to check with the Law Society the name of any research firm contacting you, to establish that they are a reputable company.

Rigden and his colleagues' work is built around a painstaking process of establishing a family tree, one document at a time. Unusual cases like Helen Lowe's attract international publicity. People with distant relatives named Lowe have been contacting Title Research from all over the world, but none has proved genuine.

Eliminating claimants like these wastes a lot of the researchers' time. Alison Riddell of solicitors Turcan Connell, who are handling the Lowe case, says Title Research has been "swamped" with Lowe claimants.

Sometimes, even the most distant link with the deceased is enough to allow someone to inherit a share of the estate. Richard Bark-Jones, a partner at London solicitors Morecroft Urquhart, recalls one recent case where a share of the estate went to the deceased's half-sibling's children. The link here was through the dead woman's father's mistress, whom he later married.

English law lays down a pecking order of relatives who may qualify to inherit even where no will exists. In order of precedence, these are: spouse and children, parents, full brothers and sisters, their children, more distant relatives and - finally - the government. In Bark-Jones' example, the beneficiaries managed to prevent HM Treasury getting its hands on the money only at the last possible moment.

Anyone who might reasonably have expected to have inherited from a will may also be able to claim a share of the estate. This might cover, say, a long-standing and loyal housekeeper; and, since 1996, an unmarried heterosexual partner who had lived with the deceased for two years or more may also have a claim. In both these cases, however, the claimant will have to satisfy the courts.

Administrators of estates where no will has been left are responsible for finding missing relatives, and this is a demanding task. Helped by solicitors and genealogists, they must seek relatives all over the world. As Bark-Jones says: "It might be that the deceased had a cousin who went to New York in 1954. In that case, the genealogist might place advertisements there. The administrator's enquiries are not limited to the UK."

The test of whether an administrator has done enough to try and find all possible beneficiaries is one of reasonableness. If a new claimant comes to light after the proceeds of the estate have been distributed, it is up to the claimant to pursue the beneficiaries. Providing the administrator has done everything reasonable, he or she is in the clear.

There are no hard-and-fast rules regarding how long an administrator must search before making the distribution. Kenneth Norrie, professor of law at the University of Strathclyde, says: "For a very large estate with a very large family two generations ago, and nobody apparently living in the UK, it would be reasonable to search worldwide for some time.

"On the other hand, if the family was dying out, and the estate was small, it would be reasonable to stop searching after a shorter time. Six months would be the absolute minimum."

Once the Treasury has claimed an estate, disgruntled relatives who were not discovered at the time have 30 years to stake a claim. After that point, the matter is closed. Rigden says: "Sometimes, there are family legends that become distorted over the course of a century. Very few of those are welI-founded and, even when they are, they tend to have been sorted out already."

One of the happiest aspects of Rigden's work is that even the humblest members of society can benefit. "We've found a number of people over the past 11 or 12 years who have been essentially homeless and have really benefited from the money," he says.