55 Pages Posted: 2 Mar 2020
Date Written: February 24, 2020
For more than 150 years, companies called “heir hunters” have operated in the shadows of the court system. Heir hunters monitor probate filings to identify intestate decedents who have missing or unknown relatives. They then perform genealogical research, locate the decedent’s kin, and offer to inform them about their inheritance rights in exchange for a share of the property. States are sharply divided about whether to enforce contracts between heir hunters and heirs. This discord stems from the fact that we know virtually nothing about heir hunting.
This Article illuminates this mysterious corner of succession law by reporting the results of the first empirical study of heir hunting. Its centerpiece is a hand-collected dataset of 1,349 recent probate matters from San Francisco County, California. Because a unique disclosure norm in California effectively requires heir hunters to file their contracts in the record, the Article is able to analyze a rainbow of issues that would normally be private, such as the scope of the industry, how heir hunters operate, and the context, content, and timing of their agreements.
The Article reaches three main conclusions. First, heir hunting is a booming business. Indeed, the Article unearths 219 agreements between heir hunters and heirs from twenty-seven American states and eleven foreign countries. Second, heir hunting can be socially valuable. Heir hunters sometimes locate long-lost relatives after everyone else has failed. Third, heir hunting is also problematic. For one, the Article’s multivariate regression analysis reveals that cases with heir hunters are especially likely to devolve into litigation. In addition, heir hunters usually pay for the heir’s attorney, thus creating a stark conflict of interest. Finally, heir hunters charge exorbitant fees and routinely contact heirs before the administrator has even tried to locate them. Using these insights, the Article critiques existing approaches to heir hunting and suggests reforms that would enable the legal system to harness the practice’s benefits while limiting its costs.
Keywords: heir hunting, intestacy, empirical, champerty, litigation funding
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