You may well be a fan of the BBC’s ‘Heir Hunters’, now in its 13th series.

One case that might not have made the cut was that of former model and socialite Teresa Amstell, who died in 2011 at the ripe old age of 98 – seemingly without making a Will. Her apparent intestacy was picked up by an heir hunting company who managed to track down around 30 distant relatives likely to inherit.

It subsequently came to light that Mrs Amstell had apparently made a Will in 2009 – favouring a particular nephew – which had seemingly been ‘misplaced’.  

Central London County Court heard that the heir hunters had proceeded ‘with gusto’ to take control of the estate and benefit from £75k in commission.  This included changing the locks on her home and clearing it out before incurring significant costs to challenge the Will on the grounds of the deceased’s capacity. 

This exercise was considered ‘pointless’ by the trial Judge who found in favour of the nephew who was able to produce a copy of the Will:

The decision not to disclose the material was a conscious and deliberate decision, which was unjustified in the circumstances. [The heir hunter] treated this as a commercial venture and… acted in a belligerent and provocative manner which appears to be intended to run up costs and bring pressure to bear on [the rightful beneficiary] to withdraw or settle the claim. There was a specific and deliberate intention to run this litigation as disproportionately, obstructively and expensively as possible.

As Northern Ireland is a comparatively small jurisdiction, where it can often seem that ‘everybody knows everybody’, the role for heir hunters may be somewhat limited.  That said, in the words of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790):

‘…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.’

You can, of course, avoid all of these difficulties by simply making a Will…

By Paul Sullivan FRSA

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