There are firms known as heir hunters or heir search firms who search probate court records for estates of persons who pass away without a will and whose potential heirs are unknown. They perform a search to find out the names and addresses of these missing heirs. Next they send a letter along with a contract to this person for their signature. The contract offers to help them receive their inheritance for a fee which may be as much as one half of the amount to be inherited. If this contract is signed and returned to them, they refer this matter to an attorney with whom they have a working relationship. This attorney will notify the person that they will be representing them. If retained, the attorney will notify the attorney for the estate of their representation of this person. All further notices will then come to this attorney.
The amount of fees charged by these contracts has been the subject of much litigation and controversy. These fees are outrageously high and take advantage of a person that has no information on the estate. It is the duty of the executor of the estate to search for and notify these persons of their right to inherit. However, this often is not done and many courts appear to allow the estate administration to proceed without requiring the executor to do so. Many states have specific laws prohibiting or regulating these type of contracts. Typically these type of estates involve funds held in the state’s unclaimed funds department.
Ohio law regulates these contracts with respect to any part of an estate containing funds on deposit with the state’s unclaimed funds. Under this law these contracts are limited to a charge of no more than 10% of the unclaimed funds. The heir search firm must registered with the state of Ohio or their contract is unenforceable. They are also prohibited from sending any notice within two years of the date of report of the unclaimed funds to the state. This law only applies to estates with money due from the state’s unclaimed funds. However, these contracts have also been held to be invalid by some courts on other legal grounds.
What should you do if you receive this type of contract from an heir search firm? First, you should do nothing immediately. There’s no rush to sign and return the contract. You should try to do your own research on the Internet or check other resources to determine what relative of yours may have passed away leaving you an inheritance. Contact your relatives who may have received the same letter from the heir hunter. You should go back up your family tree considering names of ancestors especially those who may not have had children. Such a person is more likely to have passed away without any will or anyone who stepped forward to open up the estate. Of course, the heir search firm will not give you any of this information. In theory, if you are entitled to inherit from the estate you do not need to sign an heir hunter contract. However, if the executor does not have your name and address, you will not receive anything.
You should also not sign any contract without first seeking legal advice. If your search is unsuccessful, the attorney may be able to refer you to an heir search firm that will charge you a reasonable hourly charge. You should also contact other relatives who may have received a similar notice. You may be able to share the cost of the attorney and heir search fee. You might also wish to check your state’s unclaimed funds website searching under the name of any potential relative or contact the state unclaimed funds department concerning the letter you received.
If you are unsuccessful with all the above inquiries and searches, then your last resort is to hire the heir search firm.
For more information see: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&ved=2ahUKEwisxLTa2_TlAhWtJjQIHez9BWoQFjABegQIABAC&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.leg.state.nv.us%2FApp%2FNELIS%2FREL%2F79th2017%2FExhibitDocument%2FOpenExhibitDocument%3FexhibitId%3D31510%26fileDownloadName%3DSB%2520376_The%2520Dark%2520Side%2520of%2520the%2520Heir%2520Tracing%2520Industry_John%2520Cahill.pdf&usg=AOvVaw2CHmE39nRFQ0qRUo7Vbc2A