Millions in pensions investments, cash, property and other assets are waiting to be claimed, says Jeff Salway
From tracking down lost fortunes to sparking bitter disputes over inheritances, Scots are turning to family assets and heirlooms to relieve the pressure on their finances.
Every year thousands of people in Scotland die without a will, leaving unclaimed assets and cash that could prove someone else’s financial salvation.
Millions of pounds in cash, investments, pensions, property and other assets lies in thousands of unclaimed estates waiting for someone to claim ownership.
That so much money has yet to be claimed is due partly to the fact that an estimated six in ten people who die each year do so intestate – without a will. If they have no known next of kin and no heir steps forward to claim the assets, the estate goes to the Crown.
Estates in Scotland that pass to the Crown become the responsibility of the National Ultimus Haeres (ultimate heir) Unit, under the Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer Office (www.qltr.gov.uk).
It seeks to identify if there is any will, spouse, civil partner or blood relatives and regularly publishes lists of Scotland’s unclaimed estates (see box for details).
Tracking down an inheritance you believe you’re entitled to can prove time-consuming and frustrating, despite the potential reward.
Your first port of call should be the solicitor dealing with the estate.
If you don’t know who it is, asked the deceased person’s local sheriff court, which can – for a small fee – find out if any confirmation has been lodged. This usually happens a few months after the death and is a list of the deceased assets.
From this you’ll be able to find out who the executor is, which firm of solicitors is dealing with it and, if there is one, you’ll be able to secure a copy of the will. The alternative is to use a specialist search agent or heir hunter.
But while the amount of money waiting to be claimed has inspired a whole industry of heir hunters, it’s also opened a new door to scams. Fraudsters are successfully exploiting greater interest in family heirlooms by conning people into paying upfront fees for tracking down often non-existent inheritances.
Lianne Lodge, an associate at Pagan Osborne, said: “If you are contacted out of the blue regarding the death of someone you did not know, be suspicious. There are a lot of scams out there unfortunately and it is important to not be conned.”
Many of those scams can be persuasive, making it difficult to work out which heir hunter firms are legitimate and which are not.
Peter Shand, a partner with Murray Beith Murray, said: “Individuals approached by a firm informing them they are heirs, or part-heirs, to the estate of a long-lost relative should not pass over any of their details until completely satisfied that the firm is valid and reputable.”
If you’re asked for money by a firm claiming to offer its services in tracking down lost fortunes, the advice is to walk away.
“Executry expenses should be settled from the deceased’s estate and the only exception to this is delivery costs for a particular item which you may have to cover but you can offer to collect it and see if that makes a difference,” said Lodge.
If you use a specialist heir search firm you may find you’re asked to sign an “exclusivity agreement” before it divulges any details about the unclaimed estate.
And this agreement can be lucrative for the firm, with commission ranging from 15 to 40 per cent, according to Shand – a potentially huge cut of a large estate. “While there is an argument that beneficiaries are receiving an inheritance that they were not expecting, it may, nevertheless, be worthwhile for potential heirs to make their own inquiries before rushing to commit to unnecessarily punitive terms and conditions,” he said.
Tracking down long-lost fortunes is just one way in which Scots are looking to family assets to boost their finances. Scottish lawyers and succession experts have reported a growing trend of children exercising their right to inheritances from parents who are still alive.
Under Scottish succession law, when someone dies the surviving spouse or civil partner and children are entitled to certain legal rights out of the deceased’s non-property assets, whether or not there is a will. That creates an entitlement to assets including savings, investments, insurance pay-outs and even the contents of the deceased’s home, although not the actual property.
The number of cases in Scotland where adult children are now claiming those assets when the first person dies is on the rise, even where their claim comes at the expense of the surviving parent.
Children are entitled to a third of those assets – the moveable estate – or half if the parent that died didn’t have a spouse or a civil partner. Where there is a surviving spouse or civil partner, they are entitled to a third of the assets, or half if there are no children.
That people are claiming those legal rights is a relatively new phenomenon, according to Malcolm Rust, partner at Shepherd & Wedderburn in Edinburgh. “People are no doubt relying on inheritances from deceased relatives’ estates more and more as the recessionary effects of the economic slowdown bite,” he said.
“It is also true to say that with fewer of us saving consistently and fully for our retirements, the importance of inherited sums has never been so great.”
That legal rights claims are being exercised in tight economic conditions is no coincidence, Rust continued, despite the potentially troublesome long-term repercussions.
“Often it means that the child who claims is cutting him or herself off from a larger inheritance later, but that does not seem to have such relevance for some – a symptom perhaps of the times we are living through?”
Most recent unclaimed estates made available for claim in Scotland
JOYCE MATHER, d.o.b: 04/09/1923, place of birth unknown, who resided at Roseland Residential Home, 5 Laurieknowe, Dumfries, DG2 7AH and who died there on 06/06/2002, £14,441.65
HILDEGARD HODGE (married surname), d.o.b: 07/02/28, place of birth KRS Ludinghausen, Germany, who resided at Northlands Care Centre, Woodlands Road, Rosemount, Blairgowrie, PH10 6LD and who died there on 28/11/10, £16,838.05
DAVID ALEXANDER FYFE, d.o.b: 27/09/1929, place of birth unknown, who resided at 2 High Street, Kirkliston, EH29 9AW and who died at, Middleton Hall, 69 Middleton Avenue, Uphall, West Lothian, EH52 5DH on 24/11/2008, £91,913.43. QLTR Ref: UH/203/09 (19803)
EVELYN BETTY HAYDON (formerly known as Betty Haydon), d.o.b 03/09/28, place of birth Birmingham, who resided at 1 Gowan Park, Gowan Street, Arbroath, DD11 2BN and who died at Arbroath Infirmary on 25/03/10, £15,615.51
ANNABELL JAMIESON, d.o.b 09/01/1925, place of birth Aberdeen, who resided at 4 Tollihill Square, Aberdeen, AB12 5EZ and who died at Royal Infirmary, Aberdeen, AB25 2ZN on 08/01/11, (£32,296.42)
COLIN LIVINGSTONE, d.o.b 13/05/1935, place of birth Lanark, who resided at Smiddybrae House, Dounby, Orkney, KW17 2HH and who died at Balfour Hospital , Kirkwall, KW15 1BH on the 30/06/08, £8,029.77
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