I have written before about dying without a will and the fact that if you decide to do so the State of Oregon will write one for you. To figure out what will the state has written, lawyers consult a chart. If you die with children, your children get the money. If you don't have children, your parents get the money. After that your relatives get the money based upon how close a relative they are. In most cases, figuring out who gets the money when someone dies without a will is fairly easy. But sometimes it is not. When it is not, we probate lawyers run into people who make their money by finding distant heirs and taking a chunk of the inheritance in return for connecting the heirs to the probate. These folks are heir hunters.
I recently got a case in which a fellow died without a will, had no children and no living parents. His estate ended up going to a couple of elderly aunts and a fistful of cousins. The dead guy had not been the family type and therefore the relatives who stood to inherit barely knew who he was. In addition, the aunts and cousins were scattered throughout the United States. As the lawyer handling the estate it was my job to find all these relatives and make sure each one got his or her inheritance. To do this I hired a genealogist and put her to work trying to find the names and addresses of the aunts and cousins. If she found them, I would send them a notice telling them that they were entitled to an inheritance. But as I went to work trying to find these people, so did the "heir hunters." I went looking for heirs to fulfill my obligations to the court as an administrator of the estate. The heir hunters went looking for a cut of the action.
Heir hunters scour the probate filings and the death notices that must be filed in every probate. They are looking for cases like the one I described. The heir hunter then attempts to locate the heirs before I can find them and sign them up as clients. The heir hunter tells the heir that he or she is entitled to an inheritance, but does not give the name of the dead relative or the court in which the probate is pending. The business then offers to "represent" the heir in the probate in return for a percentage of the inheritance.
If the heir signs a contract with the heir hunter the heir agrees to pay a percentage of his or her inheritance--from 20% to 50% but usually 33%--to the heir hunters. The heir hunter then refers the case to an attorney that has an ongoing business relationship with the heir hunting company. That lawyer then contacts me to tell me that he represents the heir. The rules that I must follow tell me that if person has a lawyer, I cannot talk to them directly, but can only talk to their lawyer. From that point on, I can only communicate with that heir through the lawyer for the heir hunters.
If there are a lot of heirs, one heir hunting company may end up representing many or even all the the people entitled to an inheritance. In the case I described, I found about half the heirs before the heir hunters could sign them up, but two different companies got to the remaining heirs before I could find them. The heirs that signed with the heir hunters will pay a percentage of their inheritance to the company. The ones I found will not.
You might ask what heir hunters actually do for the heirs they find. As far as I can tell--not much. So far the heir hunters in my case have notified me that they represent some of the heirs and asked me to provide them with further court filings. Neither of lawyers representing the heir hunters have filed an "appearance" in the case, something that would have entitled them to copies of all pleadings as a matter of right. I brought this up to one of the lawyers and was informed that he had not filed an appearance on behalf of his client because the filing fee was so high. It does not seem that he intends to actually do anything in the case except wait for me to finish the administration and collect his percentage.
In my experience, the heir hunters do little other than connect the heir to the lawyer doing the probate of the estate. Anything further than that--such as actually doing some work to protect their client's interest-- cuts into their profit. I do my best to find all the heirs in cases like this. I hire a professional genealogist who charges by the hour and I pay her a lot. She will find the heirs, but sometimes the heir hunters find them first. If I have a choice, I put her to work before I file the probate. That way I can get to the heirs before the notice is published. Sometimes, however, the probate needs to be opened quickly in order to protect estate property. In those cases it is a race, and when I lose the race the heirs lose a percentage of their inheritance.
A post like this should end with some advice. I guess my advice would be that if you are contacted by heir hunters attempt to delay. String them along while you talk to relatives--near and far--and try to find out who died. Waiting will also allow the person administering the estate time to find you. Probate administration takes a while. The heir hunter may say that action on your part is urgent, but it really isn't. Hold off and look around. If you get a lead on a dead relative who might have left you money, call the state court where you think he might have died. If you find something, look up the lawyer who is doing the probate. He will be glad to hear from you because he has probably been looking for you. Give the lawyer your address and get all your inheritance, not just the portion left after the heir hunter has taken its cut.