Heir-hunting for Irish links to deceased diaspora on the rise

More than 500 estates of Irish people waiting to be claimed from UK authorities

With little fanfare, small legal notices are from time to time placed in newspapers under the heading "call for heirs". One published in The Irish Times in late July originated from Meilen near Zurich, Switzerland, and sought information on possible heirs to the late Mary Veronica Warren, who was a citizen of the Swiss municipality of Zollikon, but had been born to Timothy and Ellen Warren in 1940 in Ballineen, Co Cork.

The notice stated the authorities had no data on any possible legal heirs, either offspring, siblings, or offspring of siblings – nor did they have information on whether Timothy and Ellen had indeed predeceased Mary Veronica, or any documents concerning “grandparental lines”.

Any possible legal heirs, with “sufficient documentation to identify their heirship”, have a year to contact the Swiss agency to claim their place in the succession.

Multiple waves of emigration from Ireland throughout the 20th century mean such cases are now on the rise. The person who died may have moved to a country where they have no known next of kin. Their will may have been written decades before and untouched ever since, or they may not have made a will at all.

Probate – the legal distribution of a deceased person’s assets – is more complex when the person has died intestate (without a will). This can become more complicated still when the person had moved to another country where they have no known next of kin.

Rise in cases

London-headquartered probate genealogy company Finders International, which has featured in the BBC television series Heir Hunters, says there has been a rise in cases of Irish people who have died intestate in England and Wales with no known next of kin.

"There are an incredible number of estates of deceased Irish people waiting to be claimed from the UK government," says Maeve Mullin, senior researcher and office manager at the company's Dublin base.

I really didn't know whether to believe it or not. We really didn't know anything about our uncle

So far in 2019, it has worked on 69 cases of Irish people dying without a will in the UK, where there is no known next of kin. This compares to a total of 57 cases throughout 2018, some 46 in 2017 and only 39 in 2016.

One case Mullin has worked on since the opening of Finders International’s office here saw Dubliner Denise Dalton and her four brothers receive an unexpected inheritance from their uncle Patrick Dalton, who died in London aged 81, and was a brother of Denise’s late father Thomas Dalton.

Denise had met her uncle only once, when she was about eight years old. Patrick had been born in Clarendon Street, Dublin, in 1934, but later emigrated to Manchester and the family lost touch. A letter from Finders International about a possible inheritance naturally provoked suspicion. “I really didn’t know whether to believe it or not,” says Dalton. “We really didn’t know anything about our uncle.”

In fact, she and her siblings were entitled to a share of the €100,000 inheritance – about €5,000 each – with the majority falling to Patrick’s brother and sister. Without intervention, the money would have passed to the UK crown, but Lambeth Council in London had instead appointed Finders International to conduct a search for heirs.

Cases such as this may fall on to Irish probate genealogists' in-trays directly from local authorities, nursing homes, hospitals and solicitors in other countries. But in the case of England and Wales, there's a useful resource known as the Bona Vacantia – a government register of unclaimed estates published by the UK treasury department. There are currently more than 500 cases relating to a deceased person of Irish origin on the list, which also typically lists the authority – for example, a local council, the Post Office or a health provider – that has informed of the death.

In something of a boon for professional probate genealogists, funding cuts to the Bona Vacantia division about five years ago mean there is now no UK government search for a will before the estate is listed as ownerless. Mullin believes this funding cut has triggered a rise in the number of listings.

Some cases are very difficult to crack, but we would have a high success rate

Current surnames on the list of Irish people who have died in England and Wales include Callaghan, Corrigan, Delahunty, Dennehy, Farrelly, Geoghan, McLoughlin, O'Loughlan, Walsh and others – Finders maintains a publicly searchable database at Unclaimedestates.ie. It will perform a tracing service unless the estate is valued at under £1,000, at which point its percentage-based fee will be too low to be commercially viable.

Unclaimed estates from before 1997 must be claimed within 30 years of the person’s death. But after 1997, there’s a 12-year rule. Heirs have 12 years from the date that the estate was administered to make a claim – in practice, the Bona Vacantia division says this roughly translates to 12-14 years after the person’s death.

"Some cases are very difficult to crack, but we would have a high success rate," says Lorna Fleming, private client manager at Finders International's Dublin office.

The Bona Vacantia cases from England and Wales are just part of its caseload, which Fleming describes as “fascinating”. Finders has agents in countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia, countries to which high numbers of people from Ireland and Britain have emigrated over the past century, while the Dublin office also deals with queries of Irish origin that are either advertised by the Chief State Solicitor or referred to it by individual solicitors and authorities – these cases, too, are rising.

Partial intestacy

“Maybe there’s a will, but the named beneficiaries have predeceased the person, or they can’t find them,” says Fleming. Cases where there is a will, but it has not been possible to distribute the estate according to the person’s wishes, are known as partial intestacy.

“It can sometimes be very hard to find people if they are maybe given an incorrect date of birth,” says Fleming. The absence of a maiden name can also make it harder to trace relatives, while in cases where wills have been made but not updated for a long time, the address given for a beneficiary “might be from 1971”.

Solicitors may also ask probate genealogy specialists to verify family trees, only for the process to uncover additional siblings to those already known.

It's not always about the money. It's actually about finding out about the relatives as well

“All the cases are quite different,” Fleming explains. What they typically have in common is that the relatives – often close relatives – either did not know the deceased person or had lost contact with them. This doesn’t always date back to the days when it was prohibitively expensive for Irish migrants to come home, or to pre-internet times.

“You would think nowadays that it is difficult to lose touch, but people have their reasons,” she adds. Sometimes it is simply the passage of time that has created an information gap. “Business isn’t getting any quieter, put it that way.”

For surviving relatives who do hear of an unexpected inheritance, the thing that intrigues them the most is often the deceased person’s story and learning, perhaps for the first time, about their place in the family tree.

“It’s not always about the money. It’s actually about finding out about the relatives as well. That is a big part of it with the people we speak to.”

Unclaimed estates

Finders International operates the Unclaimedestates.ie website, where people can search the Bona Vacantia list of unclaimed estates left by Irish people who have died in England and Wales since 1997. These are just some of more than 500 examples.

Theresa Whyte, nee McInerney, was originally from Limerick, where she was born in December 1933. She died in Bridgend, Cardiff, earlier this year. She was a widow, predeceased by husband Alan Whyte. Her estate was listed as unclaimed in June.

Patrick Gerard Reilly was born somewhere in the Republic of Ireland, and died aged 68 in Lambeth, south London, in August 1989. He was a bachelor. His estate is still unclaimed almost 30 years after his death and will revert to the UK Crown permanently this month if it remains unclaimed.

Brenda Lilian Mills, of Irish birth, was born in July 1953 and died in Woolton, Southampton, in December 2018. Her marital status was unknown, and her estate was listed as unclaimed in February.

Dermot John Kavanagh, of Irish birth, was born in August 1939. He died earlier this year in Bournemouth, Dorset. His marital status was unknown. His estate was listed as unclaimed in July, making it one of the most recent additions of Irish origin to the Bona Vacantia.