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Good will hunting

It’s almost everyone’s fantasy - one day, out of the blue, you inherit a fortune from a deceased relative you didn’t know existed. Sophie Evans reports on the ‘detectives’ who bring the good news.

cash, after a brief pause to remember the distant relative of course, or would you rip up the letter assuming it was a scam? Thousands of people every year are


eventually convinced that their luck has changed and that the letter is legitimate. It may come either from solicitors handling

the deceased person’s estate, or from heir hunters, who specialise in tracking down missing family members. One of the largest, Fraser & Fraser, founded in the 1920s and still family owned, has more than 50 staff, including former police officers, tasked with obtaining any birth or other personal details of potential inheritors at a moment’s notice. An estimated £85m a year is shared out this way, from the approximately 500,000 estates where the deceased dies without leaving a will. Although the typical sums involved are not large, for a few individuals they can run to hundreds of thousands of pounds. Fraser & Fraser makes its money by finding hidden beneficiaries and taking a finder’s fee

magine finding a letter on your doormat which tells you your long lost cousin has left you a life-changing amount of money. Would you mentally start spending the

- an agreed percentage of the inheritance, which varies from case to case. The firm’s searches for missing relatives are

regularly featured on the BBC television show Heir Hunters. Many of the cases that Fraser’s team look into

are published on a list – the Bona Vacantia –and features people who died intestate. It is published each day by the Government

and companies up and down country race against time to sign up heirs so they can take a share of the overall estate. If heirs are not found within 30 years of the death, the money automatically goes to the state. Neil Fraser, a partner in the company, said

there are 11,500 cases on the list, but many are of low value and unable to be extensively researched because it would cost the company more money than they would be able to recoup. He said: “We don’t like to focus solely on the money aspect of cases, as much of the job is about reuniting families and letting people know when a loved one has died – and in some cases giving them lots of information about a relative they didn’t even know they had.” One of the most interesting cases the team has looked into began after the death of

Constance Harrington. Constance died intestate aged 87, leaving behind a £130,000 inheritance. But with no siblings, no children and no spouse, tracking down Constance’s relatives was not easy. Looking into her records revealed that

Constance had lived an incredible life. She had played crucial roles with the Wrens during the Second World War, as a duty intelligence officer for top secret Cold War nuclear operations and as a personal assistant to John Profumo in the post-war years. Fraser & Fraser’s research through aunts and uncles led them to Reg Harrington, Constance’s cousin once removed. Mr Harrington said: “The different sides of the families were estranged so I never knew anything about Constance. “But when I did find out about her, and about all the sorts of things she did with her life and career, I wanted to find out lots more. “She did so much in her life, it’s a shame that

we never knew anything about her – and that she never knew about us.” Reg was signed up as a beneficiary along with 33 others from both sides of the family. He said: “Being contacted by the heir hunters

From the streets of London to a castle in Wales

ONE OF FRASER & FRASER’S most heart- warming stories features a Big Issue seller, who eventually inherited enough money to swap the cardboard boxes he called home for a castle in Wales. Stephen Steele* had been homeless for many

years and had lost contact with virtually all of his family. He didn’t know his cousin Margaret Steele, still less that she had died a childless widow, leaving behind a large house and a small bungalow, as well as other valuable assets. A man had initially come forward claiming to

have Margaret’s will, in which he was named as executor. But the will was found to be forged, and

26 Farewell Magazine

by the time Fraser & Fraser became involved in the search for heirs, the will had already been revoked. Luckily, Margaret’s estate had not been

distributed and the company could start their search for heirs to the estate. The research identified family members

quickly, with one living in Spain. Fraser & Fraser found a record of Stephen’s birth, but were struggling to find his most recent address. The family knew he had been living on the

streets for a considerable amount of time, but no one had had any contact with him for many years. Eventually, the firm discovered that he sold the Big Issue in London and worked a pitch in Soho. They travelled to the site and found the

cardboard boxes he called home, but Stephen was not there. The company sent a letter to the Big Issue

offices to be passed on to Stephen when he was next there. This letter encouraged Stephen to call Fraser’s office on a reverse charge call. Eventually, Stephen turned up unexpectedly

at the Fraser & Fraser office, in central London. He had indeed been homeless for years and

was accustomed to things not turning out well for him. He was sceptical that this would bring him anything at all. Nevertheless he said that he hoped he would inherit enough money to be able to buy himself a little house in Wales, which would probably cost him £10,000.

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