This is a really worthwhile service, in which you can make a good honest profit by helping other people receive, possibly, hundreds of thousands of pounds they didn’t know they were entitled to! (It could be a lot of fun too.)

It’s not actually a new business idea. Although to my knowledge no one has published the full details of how to do it before.

So let me get right to the point: this business is about setting yourself up as an heir hunter or, as it’s more correctly known, a probate researcher.

First of all, a bit of background

Lots of people have a Will for when they die. But a surprisingly number do not. It’s estimated that about one in three of the population die without leaving a Will. (That’s an awful lot of people who are potentially the focus of this business.)

Here’s what happens if someone dies without leaving a Will (or intestate, as it’s known). By law, their money (or estate, as it’s known) automatically goes to their heirs, usually their children in the first instance.

But what if there are no obvious known heirs? Perhaps the deceased person had no children. Or over the years they have lost touch with their relatives, or even fallen out with them. Well, then their estate – which can include money in the bank, insurance payouts and all their property – goes to the government! Sad but true.

The fact is, in many of these cases of intestacy, there ARE relatives (or beneficiaries) who are entitled to this money. It’s just that because there is no Will and no known contact they are unknown. If, however, they can be found they are entitled to receive the money… which can be anything from a few hundred to several hundreds of thousands of pounds. Even if they know nothing about it, or never knew the relative concerned!

So that’s what this business does: hunts down unknown or missing heirs and helps them claim the money to which they’re entitled in return for a fee. (It also stops the government getting its hands on the money, which can’t be bad!)

This is already a proven business opportunity!

If you think that this opportunity isn’t as good as it sounds, let me tell you that this is already a proven, up-and-running business. It works!

If you’re a fan of daytime TV (and I kind of hope you’re not, because that is time you could be spending on money-making projects) you’ll know that there is a BBC programme called Heir Hunters which profiles experts who do just this – trace heirs to unclaimed fortunes. Each series profiles a number of people who successfully receive a – sometimes – substantial amount of money as a result of services just like this. However, although there are established competitors in this business there is absolutely NOTHING to stop you stepping in and doing exactly the same thing. (I will discuss a few ways you can actually outdo these established competitors later!)

What you need to start this business

This is a fairly straightforward opportunity to set up. You can work it part-time from home, or anywhere with Internet access. In fact it works best as a part-time opp as the volume of work will vary from week to week. You will need a PC, phone and ideally some means of transport. You’ll need a small amount of capital to cover out-of-pocket expenses but, with this business, there isn’t any equipment and no big advertising budget to cover.

You will need a fondness for research, an enquiring mind and the determination not to give up as occasionally this work will be like looking for a needle in a haystack! You’ll also need to be able to deal with people tactfully and professionally.

A few examples of successful cases

• Michael Gray was traced after his cousin died. He received an inheritance of £6,000.

• Elaine Hunt and her sister Pat Graves both inherited £21,000 when their cousin once removed died.

• Bernard Kowalski died in west London leaving an estate of £100,000. He hadn’t left a Will, had no known relatives, and so his money was destined to go to the government. In an attempt to trace his next of kin enquiries were made with the local council and his neighbours – and it was found he was born in Warsaw, Poland under a different name. Heir hunters eventually traced three blood relatives in Poland who received the money.

• Margaret Steele died a widow leaving no known relatives… but she did leave a £1.23 million estate. Heir hunters traced four heirs, each of whom was entitled to a quarter of the estate. One of the heirs included a homeless “Big Issue” seller who was able to buy a Welsh castle with his share of the proceeds!

(Cases are all from Fraser & Fraser heir hunters, and have been featured in the press.)

How this business works

There are three main steps to this business. I will describe in more detail how they work later in this blueprint:

Step 1. Collect details of people who have died intestate without any known relatives.

Step 2. Trace people who may be their next of kin and who are entitled to the money.

Step 3. Help them receive their inheritance – and claim a fee if you are successful.

But you need to act quickly: One thing I need to point out from the outset this business is basically quite straightforward, But time is very much of the essence.

Although, in law, you have 12 years to trace beneficiaries other heir hunting services will be doing the same thing. So the sooner you can trace possible beneficiaries and contact them the better, and the less chance that another service will get in before you.

So it’s important to be disciplined. Try to set aside some time each week (ideally at the end of the week – I will explain why later) to operate your projects.

How to find details of those who may have left money

The first stage of this business is really easy. You need to locate people who have died without leaving a Will AND without any known relatives.

First a bit more background: Anyone who dies and leaves a Will, will normally have their estate administered by an executor, who will quite often be a friend or relative or perhaps the family solicitor. However, anyone who dies without making a Will (known as dying intestate) and without any known next of kin has their financial affairs administered by an official government department called the Treasury Solicitor. The Treasury Solicitor holds the estate in trust in case any beneficiaries come forward. Beneficiaries have 12 years to come forward (in some cases more) but if no one is found the money then goes to the government. When beneficiaries are found the money is paid out (with interest) depending on their relationship to the deceased.

It varies, but around 2,000-3,000 new cases are handled by the Treasury Solicitor each year. Over the last tax year, for example, the Treasury Solicitor handled estates of this nature worth over £18 million and paid out over £8 million to previously lost relatives!

Now this is the interesting thing: The Treasury Solicitor tries to ensure that as much of this money as possible goes to the eligible next of kin. However, it does not and cannot go and hunt possible beneficiaries down. Hence the need for heir hunting/probate research services.

So how do you find out these names? This is one of the great things about the modern information society. You don’t have to go hunting down these names. Because the Treasury Solicitor publishes names regularly every week for anyone to collect freely from the public domain!

Here is where you will find them: The official website covering England and Wales is known as Bona Vacantia (which is Latin for “ownerless goods”) here: The latest information is posted regularly, usually every Thursday. So simply go to Bona Vacantia and you can get a list of names to start working with. Easy!

Tip. Start with the most recent announcements and act quickly to try and trace next of kin before other heir-hunting services. Once you have done that, you can look back into the archives and try to trace next of kin for older cases (up to 12 years) – but you need to bear in mind these may be more tricky.

There are, however, some differences elsewhere:

Scotland. In Scotland bona vacantia is administered by the Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer,

Unit 5, 14a South St. Andrew Street, Edinburgh, EH2 2AZ. Website:

Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland this is dealt with by the Crown Solicitor as the Treasury Solicitor’s Nominee.

Crown Solicitor, Royal Courts of Justice, Chichester Street, Belfast BT1 3JE.

Note: Under an ancient law The Treasury Solicitor does not deal with bona vacantia in the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster. This is dealt with by their solicitors:

Farrer and Co., 66 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2A 3LH. Website:

In these cases unclaimed estates are advertised in newspapers.

Tracing next of kin: an overview

This is going to be the main part of this business. Initially, it might seem quite tricky but the more tracing work you do the easier it will become as you get to know “the ropes”.

One option might be to hire part-time researchers to do this for you. However, initially you should do it yourself as it will give you a good hands-on insight into how things work.

Running a tracing project

Bear in mind you are looking for people who are related to the person who has died without leaving a Will. These could be close relatives they have lost touch with. Or they could be people who are related, but whom have never known or met each other. They could live just down the road, nationwide, or even in another country.

It is probably a good idea to focus on cases in your own area initially. You can operate nationally but locally is always going to be easiest – because you know your area you will have an advantage over heir hunters based in other areas.

Focus on people with unusual names. Obviously it will be easier to trace relatives with a fairly rare name (like Tiggywinkle!) than a common one (like Focus on larger estates. Estates can vary from as little as £500 to £1million+. In the early days you won’t know how much the deceased person has left. However, over time it may become known what sort of money is available to be inherited and it will obviously be more productive to focus on the larger ones.

Starting the process: Collecting information

Start by writing down what information you have about the deceased person (collected from Bona Vacantia, etc.) and add to your file as you find out more.

This is often the only information you will find out from Bona Vacantia:

• First name

• Middle names

• Surname

• Known nicknames or maiden name (possibly)

• City/town of residence

• Marital status (possibly)

• Date of death

You can then start searching for more information on them and subsequently for any relatives. For example, you could find their address by checking with telephone directories, the electoral register, etc. You can also obtain copies of their birth certificate and marriage certificate, if any. This can be very useful because it will state their parents’ names and help you trace other relatives in the wider family. More about this shortly.

Who is actually entitled to the money?

Who is entitled to a lost estate is set down quite clearly in law; the Administration of Estates Act 1925, no less. So it is important that you only aim to contact these people, and not people who will not be entitled. Friends and so on are never entitled to an inheritance.

Those entitled are primarily the deceased’s spouse, civil partner, and children of the deceased or blood relatives who descended from a grandparent of the deceased.

There is also an order of priority, as follows: Spouse or civil partner. Issue (this means children, grandchildren or their descendents). Parents. Brothers and sisters of the whole blood, or their issue. Brothers and sisters of the half blood, or their issue. Grandparents. Uncles and aunts of the whole blood, or their issue (first cousins or their descendents). Uncles and aunts of the half blood, or their issue.

Methods of tracing to use

I have to say that this is not – and cannot hope to be – a complete guide to tracing possible next of kin, as there simply isn’t enough space in a blueprint like this. As such, I will just give you some general pointers about how to go about it.

You can find masses of free information about tracing relatives out there on the Internet. Also there are lots of books and paid-for websites that can help with this. See the useful resources listed later.

Here’s some general guidance:

1. Public directories. Look in the electoral register. Look in telephone directories (which are available free online). Start in the immediate area and work outwards. These can only be a very general guide and may throw up a few red herrings, but may point you in the right direction.

2. The Free BMD website. This is an excellent website which links you up to registrations of births, marriages and deaths. You can search by name, area and dates and try to find any relatives living or dead.

3. This is a website which is intended for people to research their family histories (for general interest rather than heir hunting) and can provide lots of useful information. It is charged for, but the subscription is quite reasonable.

4. Do some local research. This is one way in which you can beat national heir hunters. Try to find the address where the deceased lived. Go to the area. Ask neighbours, local shopkeepers, care homes, local clubs and societies and so on if they knew the deceased, or if they know of any relatives. Many relatives have been traced as a result of “tips” from neighbours.

5. Do some Internet research. The Internet is a wonderful tool for this business. So try a random Google or similar search and see what happens. You could find possible relatives, or news reports and other documents mentioning the deceased person while they were living.

6. Commercial tracing databases. There are now a number of commercial databases which collect contact information from electoral registers and several other sources all together in one place. These do charge a fee but can save you time in searching. Some useful resources are listed at the end of this blueprint.

Keeping accurate records

Tracing relatives in this way is very much like finding the pieces of a jigsaw and fitting them together. Keeping accurate records will help you spot who might be entitled to any money, and provide further leads to follow up.

Have a file for each case, with a page listing information for each person, and a page for each relative you trace. Draw the information up into a family tree showing their relationship to one other.

There’s lots of information on how to draw family trees on the Internet.

Contacting and working with beneficiaries

The next step is to contact beneficiaries, i.e. relatives you have identified, and who you think may be entitled to a payment from the estate.

It is very important to be extremely professional at all times when contacting possible beneficiaries. It is quite likely the people you contact will be sceptical. People tend not to believe they have been left something – especially by someone they did not know. If you contact people in an unprofessional way they might not believe you are genuine, or suspect it is a scam (which this business most certainly isn’t).

A couple more important points about this:

Never give the impression that people you contact are guaranteed to receive a payment. Their relationship will need to be confirmed once you have more information about them. Also the Treasury Solicitor will need to be convinced that they are entitled to the inheritance.

At this stage don’t promise a certain amount of money. Any payout will depend not only on what the person has left but also how many relatives there are to share in it. (It could be anything from a few hundred pounds to a few hundred thousand!)

So how do you contact possible beneficiaries?

There are a few ways you can do this:

• You could contact them personally. Go round, knock on their door and tell them what you have discovered. This is the way that many established heir hunters work. It does of course require some tact, discretion and personal skills but it is likely to be the most effective way.

If you do this only visit at reasonable times, i.e. not late at night. If the person might be considered vulnerable, e.g. an elderly relative, you might like to contact them by phone first and suggest they have someone with them when you meet.

• You could telephone them, if you can find a telephone number.

• You could write to them. Send them a letter telling them that that you are an heir hunter/probate researcher and you have reason to believe that they could be entitled to an inheritance.

You might want to try combining these methods; send a letter to break the ice and then visit or telephone.

• Avoid email. There have been a number of email scams relating to probate research, and so email is not likely to generate a good response.

Important: Whichever methods you use make contact as soon as possible. Try and make sure you get in before any other heir hunting services.

Claiming the inheritance

When someone you have identified as next of kin responds to your approach make a few cross-checks. Ask them a few questions, to see if the information you have about the deceased coincides with any information they have. Try to ensure that as far as is possible at this stage they are likely to be next of kin. This may be tricky in that they might never have known the person whose money to which they might be entitled, but try to satisfy yourself as much as possible.

The next stage is to invite them to sign up for your service. I’d suggest you do this on a “finder’s fee” basis. In other words, if they receive money from the estate they will pay you a commission for finding that inheritance for them in the first place. Ask them to sign a simple agreement to this effect.

Note. No one is in any way obliged to sign up for your service. You might also ask why beneficiaries cannot do this themselves. Well, the fact is they CAN if they wish to. However, the vast majority of people do not, mainly because they lack the knowledge, time, or inclination. Experience proves that most people are prepared to pay an heir hunter to trace money they would not otherwise have had.

Assuming the next of kin sign up with you the next step is to contact the Treasury Solicitor on their behalf. This can be done by post or online at the Bona Vacantia website. You will need to explain how the next of kin is related to the deceased person, and perhaps provide documents to show this (such as the family tree you have drawn up).

What happens next?

The Treasury Solicitor will need to validate the claim and, assuming it is accepted, the estate can be processed very much as if a Will had existed. (Full details on the Bona Vacantia website.) Usually an administrator will need to be appointed, probate will need to be applied for, any assets sold, and then particulars advertised to allow any other claims to come forward. As the wheels of the law grind slowly, be aware that the process can take several months. But when the estate is paid out you will be entitled to your fee.

What sort of finder’s fee is fair?

As I said, I really do think the best way of offering this service is on a finder’s fee or success fee basis. That is, you only claim a commission when someone you trace receives an inheritance. Alternatively, you could charge a one-off fee if you prefer. However, a no payout/no fee basis means that there is no risk or upfront cost for the next of kin, which should make your offer much more attractive.

This does of course mean you will have to finance your business upfront without any regular income to start with. But since overheads are very small this shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

If you do some checking you will find that existing heir hunters/probate researchers charge anything from 25-40% of any money received. This seems a lot but bear in mind the beneficiary will be getting money they never expected to receive in the first place.

Important. I think it is only right to point out that, in the past, there have been complaints about the level of fees charged by existing heir hunter services. So try to charge fair fees and offer good value to your customers. Because you are working from home with low overheads you may well find you can charge less than the current going rate.

Also bear in mind that this is a competitive business. So be open to negotiating on fees. If the client has been approached by other services try and find out how much commission they have asked for and offer to do it for less, if you are able to.

You might find you can make a good profit by charging anything from 5% up to 25% maximum as a finder’s fee. You might also have a “floating” commission scale. For example, if the inheritance is going to be small, such as under £5,000, you might need to charge 25% in order to return a good profit. If, on the other hand, the inheritance is £500,000 or so you could still make an excellent return by charging just 5%.

Two more profitable heir-hunting services you can offer

Once you are established there are a couple of ways you could expand this service, which could increase your turnover considerably and perhaps turn it into a full-time business:

• Heir hunting for executors/solicitors. As I mentioned earlier, a majority of people who die do leave a Will. In these cases it is up to the executor (who may or may not be a firm of solicitors) to contact the beneficiaries and pay them their inheritance. However, in some cases the whereabouts of these people may not be known.

So, this opens up an opportunity to offer a tracing service for these people. Solicitors generally are not experienced in tracing lost relatives and often farm out this sort of work. For this service you would probably charge an hourly rate rather than a commission.

• Genealogical research for people interested in their family tree. This is purely for personal interest purposes rather than claiming an estate. However, the methods you will use are exactly the same as for probate research. Draw up a family tree and compile a written family history for your customer.

Existing services charge anything from £200- £1,000 or more for this kind of service. It would be a great sideline for “filling in” at times when there are fewer heir hunting assignments around.

What sort of money could you make… and some final thoughts

There are lots of variables here, but let’s look at a few examples from across the spectrum of possible cases you might handle to give us a ballpark indication of what you might make from heir hunting:

• If you handled an inheritance worth £5,000 and claimed a 25% finder’s fee you would earn £1,250.

• If you handled an inheritance worth £30,000 and claimed a 20% finder’s fee you would earn £6,000.

• If you handled an inheritance worth £100,000 and claimed a 10% finder’s fee you would earn £10,000.

• If you handled an inheritance worth £300,000 and claimed a 5% finder’s fee you would earn £15,000. (Bear in mind £300,000 is not all that much nowadays, when even an ordinary house can easily be worth that in many parts of the country.)

• If you handled an inheritance worth £500,000 and claimed a 5% finder’s fee you would earn £25,000. So it’s really difficult to project exactly how much you could make in a month or year, as it would depend on how many assignments you took on, how many were successful, how much was paid out and what fee you were able to negotiate. In each case though, your overheads wouldn’t be that large so the profit margin would be quite good.

I think you can see, therefore, that if you handled several projects a month you could be looking at a commission income of anything from several hundred to several thousands of pounds per month on a reasonably regular basis, and still from a part-time project.

Useful resources

Some useful contacts and websites that can help you trace beneficiaries: Website: Useful family history site.

Cyndi’s List Website: Useful free directory of people-tracing websites around the world.

Family Relatives Website: Birth, marriage and death indexes, post office records, land records, school records, military records – chargeable service.

Find My Past Website: Commercial tracing service for family records. Some limited information free.

Free BMD Website: Birth, marriage and death indexes – free service. Search for relatives by name, dates and location.

National Archives Website: Lists births, marriages and deaths and military records (mainly older information) as well as many other national records.

The Probate Service Website: Records details of wills and information on the probate process.

Roots Detective Website : A complete home study course published by Canonbury Publishing, aimed at those who want to research and sell family trees.

The General Register Office Website: The General Register Office holds a central copy of all birth/marriage/death registrations for England and Wales. Local Register Offices also hold records of registrations in their area. Copies can be purchased online.

The Phone Book Directory Enquiries Website: Free directory enquiries.

UK Roll Website: Commercial tracing service for people. Births, marriages and deaths, electoral rolls. Website: Commercial tracing service for people and businesses.