Inheritance tax ‘red flag’ – How to identify legitimate and unethical heir hunters

Owen Jones says that inheritance should be taxed

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Inheritance tax (IHT) is levied on the estate of someone who has died and is passing on their assets, so long as the total estate value is over £325,000. Where IHT is due, it is usually charged at 40 percent and in some cases, this charge can be paid by beneficiaries themselves.

IHT can be managed by the usage of Wills but in some instances, it can become unclear as to who is meant to inherit assets where a Will is not in place.

In light of these challenges, a “heir hunter” industry emerged and unfortunately, this has created an area where consumers and families could be targeted through dubious practices.

Philip Turvey, an executive director at Anglia Research, warned this could be a much more prevalent issue than many may expect.

He said: “The TV series Heir Hunters sensationalised the probate genealogy sector and, due to the lack of barriers to entry, this led to an exponential rise in the number of unethical, unqualified firms who have no qualms in engaging in underhand tactics at the expense of beneficiaries.

“Our FOI report – which surveyed all local authorities in England and Wales – found that seven councils have exclusive written contracts with heir hunters: a practice which limits the amount of scrutiny given to each case.

“Some unethical heir hunters use these types of written contracts to only identify easy to find heirs to an estate, collect their fee and forgo the rest of the beneficiaries – potentially resulting years of legal battles for some to get the inheritance they are owed.

“Other unethical heir hunters also use pressure-selling tactics, such as emotional manipulation or pushing a beneficiary to sign a fee agreement by falsely telling them there is a deadline.”

Fortunately, Philip went on to break down how families can check if a claim from an heir hunter is legit and how unethical practices could be identified.

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How beneficiaries can check if a claim from an heir hunter is legit

There are a number of basic actions families can take to ensure legitimacy, as Philip explained: “Probate genealogy firms usually get in touch via a letter, phone call or email, but just because they have your contact information, it doesn’t mean they are legit.

“Beneficiaries should do some initial research of their own into the probate genealogy firm before committing.

“For example, they could check to see if the firm is registered at Companies House which will show how long the company has been trading for. Independent online reviews, such as those provided by Google, are also worth reading to learn about the experience of others.

“Beneficiaries should also check the firm’s website and search for any valid and applicable accreditations.

“We do have a problem within the probate genealogy sector of firms creating their own accreditations and awards to feign legitimacy.

“However, there are some industry bodies and awards that are genuine, such as The Association of Probate Researchers – the only independent self-regulator within the industry which has a code of conduct and a representative from each member company on the Board of Directors.”

How beneficiaries can spot an unethical heir hunter

Philip concluded by highlighting key red flags beneficiaries should look out for: “If an heir hunting firm asks for your bank details or for you to make an upfront payment in the middle of the probate process, then this is a major red flag.

“Beneficiaries must remember that the fee for a probate genealogist is always paid on the conclusion of the estate administration and usually by direct deduction from the amount you are entitled to.

“Any probate genealogist or heir hunter telling you differently, and requesting direct payment before this stage should not be trusted.

“Consumers need to remember this when dealing with a probate genealogist and check their rights before signing on the dotted line.”

Impartial guidance on inheritance, probate and Will rules can be sought from the likes of the Money Advice Service and Citizens Advice.

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