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Heir hunter loses court battle for inheritance cash

by Access Legal

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A TV heir hunter has lost a battle for a substantial inheritance from an estate that was declared Bona Vacantia after a judge found against the long lost brother traced by them in favour of a daughter of the deceased given up for adoption.

As per a previous legal update, the estate of anyone who dies without a will and without any known surviving relations is termed 'Bona Vacantia'. If no relatives, no matter how distant, can be found, Bona Vacantia estates pass entirely to the Treasury or to the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster.

The Treasury Solicitor's office publishes the names and addresses of people who have died without a will and without heirs along with the estimated value of their estate in a weekly bulletin. This information is mined by genealogists - the so called heir hunters - to trace distant relatives who may be entitled to receive a share of the estate under the intestacy rules.

If they do track a relative down, the heir hunters act as an agent on their behalf and for a flat fee or for a cut of the estate. However, things are seldom as straightforward as the heir hunters or the newly unearthed long lost relatives might hope for in these circumstances.

In the case of Wlodzimierz Bogusz, who died without leaving a will and having any known relations, genealogist Peter Birchwood, a senior partner at Celtic Research, which has featured in the BBC TV series ‘Heir Hunters’, successfully tracked down a brother, Mykola Bogusz, to Eastern Europe.

Birchwood was granted power of attorney by Mykola Bogusz and promised to act in return for a retainer fee, but the deceased’s biological daughter, Mrs Cheryle Vallee, mounted a legal challenge in the High Court to prove her right to her father's home in Reading, which comprised most of the £250,000 value of the estate.

Because she had been formally adopted by family friends at the age of 13, Mrs Vallee (now 63 years old) had no right to inherit her father's estate as such, but insisted she was entitled to her father's house because he had handed her the keys and deeds shortly before his death and pledged that he wanted her to have the house when he died.

The heir hunter opposed her claim and the case came before a judge at Oxford County Court. He ruled in favour of Mrs Vallee on the basis that Mr Bogusz had ‘gifted’ the house to his daughter ‘in contemplation of his impending death’. Birchwood, as administrator of Mr Bogusz's estate, appealed that judgement in the High Court which upheld the ruling that Mr Bogusz' eleventh-hour gift to his daughter was valid and his home, his only substantial asset, therefore fell outside his estate.

The heir hunter also failed to overturn an order that he pay Mrs Vallee's legal costs despite his claim that he took a neutral stance in the case and ‘owed a duty’ to his clients in the Ukraine to pursue their interests. The High Court ruling noted that the heir hunter had acted in the hope of financial gain and should incur the consequences of having done so.

This case once again highlights the problems which intestacy and Bona Vacantia can cause for those left behind who have to sort out your financial affairs. Bona Vacantia is largely made up of a great number of smaller estates, not just those of the famous or super rich. Regardless of how wealthy or impoverished you may think you are, it is important to make a will and it is an easy process.

Making a will ensures that what you wanted to happen to your estate actually does happen in that those you wish to inherit do in fact inherit and do not have to rely on the uncertain efforts of ‘impartial’ heir hunters or the complexities of the intestacy rules.

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