Filming for the 10th series of BBC show Heir Hunters is to take place in Ireland this autumn and will feature searches for the beneficiaries of deceased Irish people's estates.
The popular programme centres on the work of Finders International, probate genealogists based in London, who opened a branch on Sir John Rodgerson's Quay in Dublin earlier this year.
The work of a probate genealogist, for those who haven’t seen the programme, involves tracing missing or unknown beneficiaries to a person’s estate when that person has died intestate, without making a will.
Padraic Grennan, business development manager with the company, says that although there is much overlap in cases in the UK and Ireland, there is differing legislation and crucial differences in the way the State handles intestate cases here.
In the UK, the Bona Vacantia, a list of unclaimed estates, is published by the treasury. Probate genealogists work from it, often racing to be the first to find the heirs. No such list is published in Ireland.
If a person dies intestate here, his or her estate is supposed to go to the next of kin, based on rules set down in the Succession Act 1965. The estate goes to probate and the court appoints an administrator to disperse it.
If no next of kin is found and no claim on the estate is made within 15 years, all monies and any property automatically go to the State. Between 2006 and 2012, €2.8 million went to the State in this way.
The Chief State Solicitor's Office places a notice in the press seeking heirs, but Grennan says, the State ought to be doing an awful lot more to help prospective beneficiaries. "There should be a Bona Vacantia for Ireland," he says.
Succession law also differs between the UK and Ireland. For example, Grennan cites a case involving an elderly woman with Irish roots, who died leaving no will. She had five first cousins, three of whom predeceased her.
Under Irish law, her £600,000 (€830,000) estate would be divided between her two surviving first cousins. But in the UK, the offspring of the three deceased cousins were also entitled to a share.
Because the woman died in the UK, her estate was governed by the law there and the company uncovered up to 50 beneficiaries, in Ireland, the UK and America.
Finders International gets most of its Irish work from probate solicitors, who are winding up estates for people and run into difficulties.
“They may have a will and they can’t find the named beneficiary, or somebody passes away intestate with no immediate family,” he says.
Once a job comes their way, Finders start by creating a family tree. They get the date and place of birth of the deceased and search for birth, death and marriage certificates to build a picture of who may be entitled to inherit.
“We have to be able to prove who is entitled and who is not,” Grennan says.
Then, depending on their agreement with the solicitor involved, they present the information or they individually approach each perspective heir.
“Nine times out of 10 we are bringing good news to people; there is the element that somebody has passed away, but more times than not they are distant relatives that people don’t know, rarely a close relative. So they are usually delighted,” Grennan says.
The company offers a contract to the beneficiary and takes a fee based on a percentage of his or her net inheritance. He admits there is nothing to stop people thanking him for going to the trouble and then making the claim themselves.
“But it seldom happens. A lot of these cases are hard to prove and costly to research. People don’t want the hassle involved,” he says.
They are happy to sign a contract with the company and hand over a percentage of money they did not expect to be getting in the first place. They also have two weeks to revoke the contract if they change their minds.
In one complex case, still ongoing, Finders followed up on an advert placed in
The Irish Times
by the Chief State Solicitor’s Office, seeking the next of kin of a woman who had died intestate.
“We found there were three people due to inherit, one in America and two in Ireland, second cousins; there was a dispute over the claim and we found the right people,” Grennan says.
The company has put together a website, unclaimedestates.ie, listing the unclaimed estates of people in the UK who were born in Ireland and may have relatives here. At present, there are 650 such estates listed.
There is no regulatory body for probate genealogists, and particularly in the UK, competition is tight. Grennan says Finders has raised the level of professionalism. They even offer beneficiaries a form of insurance, through Zurich, so that if an unknown relative surfaces after an estate is distributed, they will be covered for anything that might have to be paid back.
The company is also beginning to work in adoption services. Grennan says that started when he heard an appeal to find the brother of a man who had been raised in a mother and baby home. The family had been searching for a couple of years. "We found him in a couple of weeks," he says. The Irish episodes of 'Heir Hunters' are due to be televised by the BBC next spring.