There are companies through the United States which comb through death notices and probate courts searching for a probate opened by a nonrelative and then search for any living relative of the deceased. This can be a valuable service if the heirs are scattered or the family structure is hard to ascertain.
Like many industries, unfortunately a few bad actors can ruin the market. Some companies use unscrupulous means to induce a contract for exorbitantly high fees. While these aren’t always scams, often forensic genealogists and professional heir search firms do exist and do indeed charge a fee for their services, heir hunter’s are defined as a firm or genealogy researcher not hired by the estate, who independently seeks a contract with a potential heir for a percentage of their share of inheritance without first revealing the identity of the estate, nature of the estate, or relation to the deceased. The share of inheritance a Heir Hunter Firm seeks is often very high with the upper limit in Florida as high as 40%.
The heir hunter firms claim that these are not fees at all and are actually a contracted distribution and assignment of the inheritance to them by the heir. Taken as a contract for an assignment of interest rather than a fee agreement, the contract is subject to contract law and is much harder to overcome than establishing an unreasonable fee arrangement for legal services.
Questions to ask if contacted by an Heir Hunter Firm
If you find yourself contacted by an heir hunter firm know that their attempts to pressure you into signing their contract is for their benefit, not yours. If they refuse to answer these questions, do not sign.
- Who is the relative and how am I related to that person?
Often the heir hunter firm will only agree to tell you the name of the deceased relative after you sign their contract. This is to prevent the purported heir from filing their own claim without the use of the heir hunter firm. It is important to know that even if the purported heir succeeds in undercutting the heir hunter firm, they may be entitled to reasonable fees since they made the heir aware of the estate.
- What is your fee and is it negotiable?
Do not feel pressured to sign their agreement, the fees can be quite high, upwards of 40% or more in some cases, and if the estate is large that means a significant windfall and if the estate is small, it means nearly nothing left for the heir after taxes.
- What is the nature and bounty of the estate of the person you claim that I am related to? (How much is in the estate?)
This is important information in the negotiation of the heir hunter’s fees. 1% of a million dollars is ten thousand dollars, so negotiating even a one percent drop in fee can mean a significant difference for the purported heir.
- What is your hourly rate, and how much time did you have to work to find me?
This information helps in establishing a reasonable rate for services rendered, and may be all the heir hunter firm is legally entitled to, especially if you choose not to retain their services, and sign their contract.
- Can I hire my own attorney for the probate?
Heir hunter firms will try to justify their high fees with providing you an attorney which works for them and agrees to do all the legal work. It is unclear if you agree to this, if the attorney will seek payment from the heir hunter, or if the attorney will seek payment from the purported heir or from the estate directly.
- What are you going to provide in the probate administration?
Often heir hunter firms will work with an associated attorney who will happily handle every aspect of the probate administration delegating out the responsibilities and duties as they go along. One thing to remember is that this service is often charged to you above and beyond the heir hunter’s fee that is signed for in the contract.
The key take away is to not feel pressured into signing their contract. If you do find yourself in the situation where an heir hunter firm is contacting you, find a lawyer with experience in probate and working with heir hunters, such as this firm, and get an opinion before you sign. If you truly are the only heir, then the estate isn’t going anywhere while you research and get an opinion from a professional.
Our office recovers surplus funds and inheritance across the State of Florida. We also have access to Court records and surplus funds and importantly we offer free consultations. If you are considering hiring a company to assist you in the recovery of funds for a percentage give us a call to understand your rights.
-Brice Zoecklein, Esq.
Disclaimer: The information contained in this blog/website is for informational purposes only and provides general information about the law but not specific advice. This information should not be used as a substitute for advice from competent legal counsel as laws change and the facts in your specific case need to be analyzed.