Recently, a friend of mine received a letter from a firm of heir hunters informing him that a distant relative of his had died and inviting him to contact them.

Keen to find out more about his unexpected windfall he did so and was happy to sign up to their fee agreement, which was 20 per cent of his inheritance.

Later, when all the family had been located, he was not so happy to discover that whilst some of the beneficiaries had signed up, not all had done so and those who had not stood to receive all of their inheritance whilst he would only receive 80 per cent of his.

If you find yourself being approached by an heir hunter (which is the common name for professional genealogists who specialise in finding beneficiaries) it’s worth considering the following.

Be cautious — it may be a scam Fraudsters are approaching people and informing them they are due a large inheritance but requesting they send them some money first. Of course, the inheritance never materialises.

Carry out research of your own Contact family members to find out who may have died. The heir hunter may not be willing to disclose information but try to find out from them the name of the person who has passed away and what relation they are to you.

The Treasury Solicitor's Bona Vacantia (ownerless goods) website — uk/output/ — provides a list of unclaimed estates. The Treasury Solicitor administers the estates of people who die without a will and without known surviving relatives.

On the website are published the names of all their deceased estates, the deceased’s marital status, when they died and their places of death. The Treasury Solicitor also places advertisements in the national and local newspapers.

The website has a useful family tree to determine if you are a relative entitled to a share of an intestate estate. If you believe you are entitled, you can make a free claim on the site for your inheritance. If your claim is accepted, the Treasury Solicitor will give up his interest in the estate.

It’s important to sit tight Even if your research is not fruitful, there is likely to be a whole host of people (the Treasury Solicitor, genealogists and solicitors) trying to find you. The Treasury Solicitor will follow up on any leads. Once a beneficiary is found, if that person takes up the role of administrator they will be responsible for ensuring all reasonable steps are taken to find the beneficiaries of the estate before it can be distributed.

Personal representatives can instruct a genealogist to locate any missing beneficiaries.

Once one beneficiary is found it can be fairly easy for that person to get in touch with relatives who may also be entitled, although the more distant the family the harder this may be.

In any event you have at least 12 years from the date of death to bring an action to claim a share of a Bona Vacantia estate. It is only if, after 30 years have passed and no claim is brought, that the estate passes to the Crown.

It is your decision as to whether you sign up to the agreement with the heir hunter but be very aware of the fees charged, which will usually be a percentage of your inheritance.

The heir hunting industry is unregulated and I have seen fees of between 15 per cent and 33.3 per cent.

Discuss with the heir-hunter whether any other charging structure is offered and consider which is best. That said, it is likely at this stage that neither you nor the heir hunter will know the value of the estate and how many other beneficiaries there are.

So it can be difficult to know how much you are likely to end up paying. The heir-hunter should recommend you take independent legal advice and you would be well-advised to do so.

The figures for 2011/12 published by the Treasury Solicitor reveal there were 28,170 Bona Vacantia cases last year and that income of more than £33m was generated from the realisation of estates passing to the Crown.

The only way to be certain as to the destination of your estate is to have a well drafted will and ensure that it is kept up-to-date.

As with heir hunters, many will writers are unregulated and so you may wish to ensure you are assisted by a suitably qualified professional.

To find a specialist in your area, check the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP) website at