Following our recent blog (which can be read here), discussing the unscrupulous practices used by some ‘heir hunters’, we were contacted by Finders (a probate research agency). Danny Curran, the MD and founder of Finders, informed us that there have in fact been large-scale efforts within the probate research industry to establish consumer protection and a professional standard of conduct.
The term heir hunters refers to businesses that specialise in probate research and genealogy. Their work involves locating, tracing and identifying the missing or unknown heirs to an estate. In several European countries the role of probate research and genealogy is often needed to find the beneficiaries of an estate. In France, for example, there is very little freedom to leave your estate to whoever you like. They have strict succession rules stating how much of your estate will pass to your spouse and children. This means that that probate solicitors often have to use genealogists to trace family members. In the UK, probate research and genealogy generally only comes into question once the deceased has passed and the intended beneficiaries of estate are not immediately traceable.
Currently, the industry remains unregulated but as Mr Curran explained to us that is not to say that all probate and genealogy agencies follow unscrupulous practices. While there have been several lobbying attempts made over the years to persuade the government to regulate, the relatively low annual turnover of this business sector means that this has yet to happen.
That said, the industry has sought to evolve through self-regulation. In 2016, the probate research and genealogy industry established two new regulatory bodies: the Association of Probate Researchers (‘APR’) and the International Association of Professional Probate Researchers, Genealogists & Heir Hunters (‘IAPPR’).
These membership organisations go some way to alleviate the concerns that solicitors, local authorities and the general public may have about probate research and genealogy agencies working in unprincipled ways. By introducing a code of conduct, accepted practices and fee models – the heir hunter firms who agree to be regulated are adhering to professional standards. If their business practice falls below the specified code of conduct both regulatory bodies have a formal complaints procedure for consumers and are able to offer compensation.
As both these regulatory organisations are privately funded, members have to pay annual fees and this may serve as a deterrent to full industry regulation. However registration does help to uphold an industry ‘standard’, helping to ensure consumer protection and making harder for untrained and ‘hobby genealogists’ to operate.
If you are contacted by heir hunters, as described in our earlier blog, you don’t have any say in the choice of the company who has been instructed to trace beneficiaries. However, if you need to instruct probate researchers, you can choose a company who is regulated by one of the two regulatory bodies named above.