Heir hunting, public funerals and intestate deaths

1. Our previous research tells us that there are a number of ways that heir hunters can obtain leads from local authorities. Since March 2019, have any referrals have been made to a heir hunter to locate next of kin by the following:

a) The local authority’s public health funeral or equivalent team


b) The local authority’s client finance, deputyship/appointeeship or equivalent team 


c) The local authority’s empty homes or equivalent team 


d) Any other team, department or individual at the local authority? 


2. If deceased estates are published as soon as the property and assets are secured, then heir hunters are able to compete for the case, resulting in next of kin having the option to attend the funeral, speedy resolution of the estate and fair fees for next of kin. Does the local authority:
a) publish an online list of public health funerals or intestacies? 


b) publish sufficient data to allow heir hunters to research the case? 


c) update their published list at regular intervals so that the data is accurate? 

Not applicable following our response to question 2 (b) above

d) update their published lists at the earliest opportunity, as soon as the property and assets are secured and prior to any funeral?

Not applicable following our response to question 2 (b) above

3. We would like to understand if there has been an increase in people dying intestate during the Covid-19 lock down. In total, how many people died intestate in the local authority’s area:
a) during March, April and May of this year?  
b) during March, April and May of 2019? 

We do not hold this information

4. During the Covid-19 lock down, has the local authority:
a) changed the way they operate in relation to intestacies and public health funerals? 


b) increased use of genealogical firms to trace next of kin of deceased persons? 


c) started use of genealogical firms to trace next of kin of deceased persons? 

We already use genealogical companies.

5. Please provide copies of any internal guidance, instructions or policies issued since March this year which relate to deaths in the community/pubic health funeral procedures in the context of Covid-19/lock down. 

We do not hold this information

6. Does the local authority consider that heir hunting/genealogy companies:
a) operate honestly and transparently?

Whilst we do not consider that this is a request for information pursuant to s.1(4) of the Freedom of Information Act, by way of assistance, we can confirm that we feel that the organisations we work with operates this way

b) act responsibly towards next of kin when encouraging them to enter a contract? 


c) charge fairly, even when there is no competition because no other companies are aware of the case? 


7. Briefly, what is the local authority’s perception of heir hunting companies? 

They have become useful in tracing relatives.


This was not the case and we there have not addressed questions 8-10


11. Which heir hunting company/companies have been used during the period since March 2019?

The Court of Protection team work with a number of companies including Treethorpes, Finders, Estate Research and Fraser and Fraser.

12. How many referrals have been made since March 2019? 

We do not record these details and to establish the information would require files being recovered from storage and significant case officer time to find and review case notes. We would estimate the time required to be in excess of 50 hours.  This is in excess of the appropriate time limit and we are therefore not obliged to provide this information pursuant to s.12 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000

13. Does the local authority have a written contract with any of the heir hunters that have been used? If so, please provide a copy with any ‘personal data’ redacted as necessary.

We do not have any contracts with any Heir Hunters

14. We understand that heir hunters normally undertake the work on the basis that some cases will be lucrative because they will be able to charge the next of kin a ‘finders fee’. Does this local authority:
a) pay for heir hunting services? 


b) charge heir hunters a fee for the ‘leads’ the local authority provides?


15. Our previous reports highlight the risks and disadvantages of referring each case to a single heir hunter to research. Has the Council conducted any review of their approach since March 2019 including any cost versus risk analysis and, if so, please provide copies of all such records and documents. 

No review undertaken and we therefore do not hold this information.

16. It is possible that some heir hunters may court local authority work because it allows them to charge higher fees due to lack of competition. Bearing in mind the financial implications to next of kin, what measures have the local authority implemented to ensure that when they make a referral next of kin will not be overcharged? 

Relatives should have been provided with a fee structure and agreed a fee in advance of any decision being made on who administers the estate. It us up to the relative to decide if they feel they have been overcharged on an agreed fee.

17. Even where the ‘finder’s fee’ charged by the heir hunter is disproportionately high, it is possible that next of kin may not realise that they can choose to claim the estate using a different company or on their own. What measures have the local authority implemented which would:
a) ensure that the next of kin understand that the heir hunter is not acting for the local authority in an official capacity in relation to the estate?
b) ensure that the next of kin are informed of their right to choose whether to instruct and pay the heir hunter? 

The companies we use have reassured the Local Authority that they explain both points A & B to next of kin.

18. When a case is referred to a single heir hunting company, there is little transparency or accountability so it is possible overlooked beneficiaries or fraudulent claims could go unseen. How does the local authority assess and verify the authenticity of any claim on the estate?

The companies we use share their findings with the Local Authority and provide an explanation of the steps taken, results and actions taken.

19. The local authority can maintain the benefits of competition for next of kin by sending the referral email to three research companies at the same time. If the local authority has not already adopted this approach, what is the reason? 

To date we have been satisfied with the companies we use, their approach and transparency and the approach suggested could bring delays and may lead to a reduction in the standards of service which is why we will consider a number of approaches when we need to locate next of kin to administer an estate.