After Margaret Abbotts received a letter out of the blue about an unexpected inheritance, she assumed it was a scam and almost threw it away.
But, on closer inspection, she saw it referred to an older half-sister, Mary Major, whom she had never met. The letter explained that Mary had died two years earlier without making a will.
As a widow with no children, it meant Margaret, 80, was her next of kin and the rightful heir to her entire estate.
Windfall: Margaret Abbotts shows Money Mail reporter Amelia her family tree which entitled her to a £300k inheritance from a half-sister she had never met
In a daze, she called the number on the letter and found she stood to inherit more than £300,000.
Margaret, a mother of four from London, says: ‘I could not believe it. I had never come close to such an amount and did not even know how to write the figures.’
The letter had been sent by a professional heir-hunting firm, Finders International.
It is part of a booming trade in tracking down lost inheritances — just like on the popular BBC television show Heir Hunters.
I went to their head office in Hoxton, East London, to meet Finders International’s founder, Danny Curran, and find out how the business works.
Official figures reveal that, last year, almost 2,000 people died without leaving a will, or ‘intestate’, a 16 per cent increase on 2017. In these instances, any money, property or belongings goes to the next of kin.
How to spot the scams
- Ignore poorly written emails sent out of the blue promising you a windfall.
- Be wary of firms that request an upfront administration fee. Do not pay on the premise that they will ‘release’ the inheritance.
- If a firm asks for personal details, such as copies of ID or bank account information, do not send them until you are sure it is genuine.
- Search online for the wording of letters, emails or texts to see if the scam has previously been reported.
- Report potential scams to Action Fraud by calling 0300 123 2040 or visiting actionfraud.police.uk/reporting-fraud-and-cyber-crime.
Under the so-called intestate rules, such estates will first pass to spouses and civil partners, then children, parents, siblings, and so on.
Local authorities and hospitals will do their best to track down the next of kin. If they cannot find surviving relatives, estates pass to the Crown as bona vacantia — ownerless goods.
In the last tax year alone, the Crown collected £12.2 million, around £8 million of which was later given back to families after they made a claim.
The details of any unclaimed estates worth more than £500 are published by the Treasury Solicitor.
There are currently around 8,600 estates listed online (gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/unclaimed-estates-list), but you cannot see how much each is worth. The Office of Queen’s & Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer deals with unclaimed estates in Scotland.
However, in some cases, surviving relatives can be difficult to find. Family members can lose touch or often do not even know a relative exists.
In these instances, some local councils, hospitals and solicitors employ firms such as Finders International to help track down a next of kin.
Private heir-hunting companies also regularly trawl the Bona Vacantia list to find estates they can reunite with their rightful owners and take a cut for themelves.
Mr Curran says the first thing his team typically does is to find out if the deceased owned any property by checking the Land Registry. This suggests the estate is valuable enough to pursue.
Some local councils, hospitals and solicitors employ firms such as Finders International to help track down a next of kin
He then employs retired police officers to gather information, such as by knocking on neighbours’ doors and speaking to local businesses to find out how long the person lived in the area and whether they had any family.
Birth, marriage and death certificates can be found on family history websites such as Ancestry. Some heirs are found in a day, while others take years.
Finders International can take up to 30 per cent, but will negotiate. In Margaret’s case, it took a 15 per cent commission.
Margaret, who worked in the BBC World Service newsroom, knew her father had another daughter, who was 19 years her senior, from his first marriage.
But he walked out on Margaret’s mother when she was ten months old, so she never met her half-sister. She did not know Mary had died in 2005 in Cambridgeshire.
Finders International was hired by solicitors acting for Mary’s estate, who had been appointed by cousins looking to make a claim.
It took around 18 months from the day Margaret found out she was due an inheritance for the estate to be settled.
It meant Margaret could clear her mortgage, go on holiday and gift money to her children. She is now also using some of it to pay for a carer.
Margaret says: ‘The money will help me in later life, but I wish I had met my sister, as I had no one growing up. I’m glad my children have each other.’