What Do I Need to Know If I am Contacted by an Heir Hunter
WHAT SHOULD I DO IF AN HEIR HUNTER CONTACTS ME?
Q. I was just contacted by an “heir hunter” who said that they have a large inheritance for me and want me to sign some papers. Is this a scam or could this be for real; what shall I do?
A. When a person passes away without a will, probate attorneys or trust officers file public record intestate estate notices seeking the person’s missing heirs. If you are a missing heir you may be contacted by an heir search firm. These firms make their living finding missing heirs, but not all heir search firms charge the same fees for their services. Some charge set fees based on hourly rates and the availability of data and the complexity of the anticipated search to find missing heirs. Others often charge a finder’s fee that can range from 20 to 50 percent of the asset value going to the heir.
The following are some important issues for you to consider if you are contacted by an heir hunter as a possible missing heir:
- SHOULD I SEEK INDEPENDENT LEGAL ADVICE?
Yes, seek legal advice BEFORE signing a contract with an heir hunter. If the heir hunter offers to refer you to an attorney, ask yourself if the attorney being referred will be serving your best interests or those of the heir hunter? Depending upon the amount of the inheritance, INDEPENDENT legal advice could save you a great deal of money, potentially tens of thousands of dollars.
- WHAT IF I’M TOLD THAT TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE?
If the heir hunter tells you that you must sign their contract as soon as possible to ensure that your right of inheritance is protected, that is most likely not the case. If you have a right of inheritance and there is an estate or trust out there somewhere, the trustee or administrator of the estate will quite likely find you through their own efforts and, almost always at much lower cost. Typically, heir hunters are not hired by the estate. If they were, they would, or should, have freely provided you with the full estate particulars rather than asking you to sign a contract without providing full disclosure. More likely, the heir hunter is working independently, hoping they can convince you to sign a contract with them before you hear about your inheritance through other, less expensive, channels.
- FROM WHOSE ESTATE MIGHT I HAVE AN ENTITLEMENT?
Most inheritances of this nature occur when a distant elderly relative has passed away without having written a will and without leaving a surviving spouse or children who would normally inherit the estate. If the heir hunter tells you that you have a legal right to inherit, (most likely true or you wouldn’t be asked to sign a contract) before you agree to sign, stop and think about who your distant relatives may be. Sit down and make a written list of possible distant relatives such as: aunts, uncles, maternal and paternal grandparents, great aunts and uncles, etc. Most likely, your inheritance will come from the estate of a person you haven’t had recent contact with (or even knowledge of.)
- SHOULD I SPEAK WITH OTHER FAMILY MEMBERS?
If you have siblings, call them immediately and discuss the heir hunter contract with them. If they have also been contacted by the heir hunter, tell them not to sign a contract until your family has tried to figure out, on their own, where the inheritance may be coming from. If you don’t have siblings, try calling cousins and talk it over with them. Write down the names and family relationship of people you may be guessing the inheritance could be coming from and then share that information with all the relatives you speak with.
- CAN I DO RESEARCH ON MY OWN?
You can do research on your own: check on the Internet for obituaries or notice of death in the area where you think some of your distant relatives may have resided. An obituary or notice of death will normally include the name and address of the estate administrator. The solution could be as straightforward as calling the estate administrator. Also check the Internet for the names and telephone numbers of people you think are related to you as distant relatives and call them. If they are distant relatives, tell them what you are trying to accomplish and ask for their help. Remember, if you can solve the puzzle yourself, it will not cost you anything and the heir hunter’s service will not be required.
- WHAT IF MY OWN SEARCH EFFORTS FAIL?
If your own efforts do not prove successful, other options may include asking the independent attorney you engaged if they could refer you to an heir search firm able to offer an opinion (on an hourly fee basis, as opposed to a percentage) as to how it might go about trying to locate the source of the inheritance in question.
A second option would be to go back to the heir hunter and agree to its terms although, for obvious reasons, that should be your last choice. If you decide you must deal with the heir hunter, before you sign the contract, ask them to put in writing, the estimated hourly rate their fee would represent, measured against the actual time it took them to find you and the precise amount of your expected inheritance. If the answer provided indicates a reasonable hourly fee, ($100.00 – $200.00 per hour) you may feel more satisfied with selecting that option. On the other hand, if they won’t tell you, it may suggest their fees may be unreasonable and they are hoping to make a windfall profit, at your expense.
- WHAT RELIANCE SHOULD I PLACE ON THE TESTIMONIALS I READ ON THE HEIR HUNTER’S WEBSITE?
Business websites can be self-serving. You should make your decision as to whether you will sign their contract based upon how much information you have gathered on your own as well as the advice of your attorney.
- ARE THERE STATE LAWS REGULATING FEES CHARGED BY HEIR HUNTERS?
Many states have laws regulating how much heir hunters can legally charge missing heirs for locating services. Your attorney can review the laws in your state of residence and advise whether the fee demanded by the heir hunter is regulated.
- WHAT IF THE HEIR HUNTER TELLS ME I SHOULDN’T SPEAK WITH ANYONE
If you are contacted by someone who clearly identifies themselves as a representative of the estate and who fully discloses the estate particulars, you should ask them for the name and telephone number of the estate administrator. You should then call the estate administrator personally identifying yourself as a potential heir. Being told by the heir hunter to not speak with anyone but them takes away your ability to discover, on your own, the amount of your potential inheritance and only serves the interests of the heir hunter.
- IF I HAVE ALREADY SIGNED A CONTRACT WITH THE HEIR HUNTER, IS IT TOO LATE TO CHANGE MY MIND?
This is a question you should fully discuss with your attorney (not the attorney that was recommended by the heir hunter.) Your attorney will advise you whether the document you signed is a legal and binding contract or potentially cancellable or amendable in the state in which you reside.
As with any legal matters always check with your attorney before signing contracts or any legal document; if you are not satisfied with your attorney’s input seek out a second legal opinion.
CHECKLIST: WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW IF I AM CONTACTED BY AN HEIR HUNTER?
- Seek independent legal advice-it could save you a great deal of money!
- Time is on your side. Do not be pressured to sign a contract without your own attorney’s input.
- Ask for the name of the executor or administrator of the estate. If this is not provided and you are asked not speak to anyone on this matter, it limits your ability to fully understand what you are signing.
- Speak with other family members. Chances are others may have been asked to sign a contract and collectively you can discuss from which distant relatives this estate inheritance may be. Check the internet for obituaries and notices of death.
- If research doesn’t uncover any leads your attorney could offer options based on your particular situation – locate the source of the inheritance, negotiate reasonable fees, check state fee regulations, and cancelable or amendable contracts.
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