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If it looks too good to be true – there may be a reason for that! The public’s attention was drawn to the heir hunter a few years ago when the BBC aired its television programme Heir Hunters. The company in this was involved in identifying estates where someone had died with no apparent beneficiaries. It is not unfair to point out that they were particularly interested in larger estates rather than more modest ones.

The service these companies provide is  to try and then identify a person or people who might be entitled to inherit, once an estate has been found. The heir hunter gets paid a commission by that beneficiary who now inherits something they didn’t know they were entitled to receive. It looks like a good deal and a good service all round.

An heir hunter should act with utmost probity and care

However, the recently publicised case involving Andrew Fraser of the company Fraser and Fraser highlights the importance of an heir hunter acting with, in the words of Judge Nigel Gerald, “the utmost probity and care.”

This case involved the estate of the late actor and model Tessa Amstell, who died in 2011. A few years before her death, Ms Amstell made a will leaving the bulk of her estate to her nephew Martin Amstell and she also left a number of charitable legacies. After her death in 2011, the will was mislaid by the executor and a probate application did not proceed.

Mr Fraser started investigating the estate in 2016 and contacted a number of relatives with a potential interest in the estate, in the event of there being an intestacy situation. He knew that there had been a will but that it was missing, so he would only get paid if he found relatives with a better claim than Ms Amstell’s nephew.

Mr Fraser did find some relatives who would inherit if the will was declared invalid. He duly obtained a power of attorney from one of those relatives and obtained a grant of representation on his behalf despite, at this time, being fully aware of Mr Amstell’s claim but not informing the other relatives of it.

Mr Fraser proceeded to enthusiastically administer the estate and actively sought to demonstrate a lack of mental capacity on the part of Ms Amstell by trawling through her medical records. He knew that if he could get the will declared invalid he would receive a commission of approximately £75,000.

Unfortunately, Mr Fraser failed to show that the will was invalid, so he could not claim his commission. Instead, he asked the court to approve his costs for administering the estate. By that time they had amounted to nearly £250,000 – a very high proportion of the estate itself.

However, the judge was deeply unimpressed by Mr Fraser’s conduct in the matter and noted that he had seemingly approached the litigation in a “belligerent and provocative manner,” and said that Mr Fraser would have to pay those costs himself. Ultimately, a failure to take an even-handed and reasonable approach proved to be very costly for Mr Fraser.

All litigation is expensive and has inherent risk – but conducting it reasonably, honestly and even-handedly will definitely work out much better for any litigant in the long run.

For more information on wills, probate or powers of attorney, please contact Tracey Leathley, Associate in our Leeds Private Client team by emailing [email protected] or calling 0113 368 7810.